From German comic opera to Parisian operetta

Offenbach cartoon

Speculating that Vienna’s ‘fin de siècle’ started with the stock market crash of 1873, followed by Johann Strauss’s ‘Die Fledermaus’ in April 1874, I started looking through the journals of the period in search of other comic opera reviews from the time. In fact, from 1872 onwards there were a number of ‘comic’ operas that obviously anticipated the inevitable development of the operetta. Even an establishment called ‘Die Komische Oper’ kicks off with Rossini’s ‘Barber of Seville’ and Lortzing’s ‘Zar und Zimmermann’ in 1873 and 1874. There are also performances of Offenbach operettas in German such as ‘Der Wilderer’ and a spate of works by Offenbach clones such as Émile Jonas (1827-1905). This bit of research worked out quite conveniently as I’ve been booked to produce a recording later this year of one of Offenbach’s rarer rarities, ‘Fantasio’. I noticed that it was dedicated to Eduard Hanslick and performed at the Theater an der Wien in February 1872. As Hanslick’s affectionate but catty obituary of Offenbach makes clear (quoted in ‘Forbidden Music’), he was enormously popular in Vienna. It was he who would persuade Johann Strauss to take the necessary plunge to write ‘Fledermaus’, thus moving German comic opera closer to Parisian operetta soon to develop into its distinctive Viennese variant. Why Jews were possibly drawn to the genre of comic opera is quoted in ‘Forbidden Music’ from a Ralph Benatzky diary entry. He gets many of his facts wrong while perhaps highlighting a number of reasons that though speculative, might be right. Offenbach was not alone – Another popular composer of the period was the above-mentioned Émile Jonas, described by a critic of the time as ‘a follower of Juda’. (In later life, he wrote liturgical music for Paris’s Portuguese Synagogue) It was obviously more than just a phenomenon of the later 19th and early 20th century that saw Jewish composers gravitate towards the comic. The Austrian Empire’s version of England’s satirical publication ‘Punch’ was ‘Kikeriki’ (the crowing of a rooster). Kikeriki was notoriously anti-Semitic and offers an entire page poking fun of Offenbach’s popularity in Vienna. Its illustration accompanies this article with the caption: ‘Whenever we hear a new work by Offenbach, we experience the strange sensation of someone who burgles his own home’. There were three of his works running simultaneously at the time of the premiere of ‘Fantasio’. Yet this probably had practical reasons as well. Offenbach had suffered a dip in popularity during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. ‘Kikeriki’ gives us an amusing made up list of Offenbach works running in Vienna in over a dozen (made-up) theatres, many of which are fairly entertaining. It starts off with the Imperial theatre ‘by demand of the claque’ performing ‘Die Rheinnixen’ followed by the ‘side-order operetta’, “Queen Green Carrot”; the ‘Large Menagerie Operetta’, “Prince Rhinoceros”; The ‘Pastry Operetta’, “Ground Barley” – it goes on for a good dozen or so silly names in Viennese dialect making English equivalents nearly impossible, and ends with something I could translate as “The Drunken Dudes” (Die blauen Buab’n): ‘a totally new genre of work, concocted especially for the inclusion of all of Offenbach’s left-over numbers.’ Even then, it was easy to make fun of the many sub-divisions of Offenbach’s comic operas: opérette; opérette bouffe; opéra bouffe; opéra bouffon; opéra comique; opéra féerie; chinoiserie musicale and even something called a ‘conversation alsacienne’.

Hanslick offers an entire chapter in his memoirs to Offenbach. They must have been on extremely friendly terms – especially given his review below, and in spite of being the dedicatee of ‘Fantasio’! Despite the inflation of Offenbach performances (and making no mention of the fact that work is dedicated to him), it’s worth having a read of what Hanslick writes about ‘Fantasio’. Like so many devastating Hanslick reviews, what he dismisses as negative, are the very characteristics that today we would see as most attractive. ‘Fantasio’ was in some ways a prototype for ‘Tales of Hoffmann’ – even anticipating with the occasional musical quote. Indeed, I would not be surprised if Hanslick’s review did not ultimately make Offenbach even more determined to create in ‘Tales of Hoffmann’ the masterpiece it would ultimately become. (Though he never lived to hear it) Hanslick’s review is from May 30th 1872 and formed only a third of a lengthy review of the other Offenbach shows in town:

“There is a totally different background to the third Offenbach premiere this winter. With this we mean his comic opera ‘Fantasio’ with a text by Alfred de Musset, performed at the Theater an der Wien with outstanding contributions from the ladies Geistinger and Koch along with their gentlemen colleagues Messrs Swoboda and Friese. It ran for many successive performances following its opening. Offenbach dedicated both attention and great affection to the scoring of this opera – and there are the occasional moments of happy inspiration – yet ‘Fantasio’ must remain one of his least effective creations. The libretto aspires to well beyond its thin resources, all of which is treated masterly by Offenbach. Indeed, it even extends beyond his normal comic inventiveness which is where until now, his greatest musical genius lay. ‘Fantasio’ is mostly sentimental. The poetic elements, which pulsate from the play of the same name by Alfred de Musset, may have been what most drew Offenbach to the work’s musical potential, despite its lack of dramatic appeal. His otherwise infallible stage experience has let him down with a script that is childish and thin in its intrigues and offering us un-engaging principal roles; but most unfortunate of all, is the mixture of both comic and serious elements. The story-line reaches its climax when the court jester, in reality the student Fantasio in the disguise of the court jester – climbs a tree during pre-wedding festivities and uses a twig to fish the wig off of someone he assumes to be the foreign Prince engaged to the princess. He exposes his bald head much to the amusement of everyone in attendance. Yet this jollity is wasted as such outrage is greeted with arrest and possible execution (!) He’s thrown into irons and led to prison. A comic motif, while attempting an escape, worthy of farce, is the pinnacle of the action and amuses, though it creates at the same time, a moment of tragic complexities. The hackneyed moments in this work, take their revenge by not really offering us much to smile at during the comic moments while equally offering no invitation to sympathy during tragic passages. As I have already stated, the idealised fantasy atmosphere of a Ludwig Trieck fairy-story which clearly influenced the poetic treatment by de Musset, must have bewitched Offenbach’s normally reliable theatrical-sense with the result of over-sweetening many individual scenes. It seems likely that the composer Offenbach wished to show in ‘Fantasio’ the best music he was capable of writing – which regrettably does not always come out best. To do this, he would have to leave the field in which he is the absolute master: delightful comedy carried off with minimal musical effort. Just putting the obvious excess of sweat and toil into this work cannot alone guarantee its claim to artistic greatness. It’s actually the nature of Offenbach’s unique talent that demonstrates his best works as having also been his most effortless. He’s simply incapable of rising to the challenge of maintaining serious work for any duration. There are plentiful moments in ‘Fantasio’ in which the music attempts to go above and beyond the relatively light-hearted level of ‘La vie parisienne’ and ‘La princesse de Trébizonde’- nevertheless, we are of the opinion that the easy tunes and delights of these works will long outlive the artificial seriousness and artificial humour of ‘Fantasio’ – a work which has cast its gaze in the direction of musical Romanticism. By no means is Offenbach’s talent limited to the merely comic; he is perfectly able to handle the gentleness and grace that dignify more serious expression. Indeed his many earlier one-act operas or his later works, particularly ‘Vert Vert’, ‘La Périchole’ and yes, even ‘ La princesse de Trébizonde’ offer ample proof of this. But these efforts always seem to crash on the rocks of sentimentality. It would be far better if he avoided such things altogether. This was most evident in the ‘Rheinnixen’, condemned to superficiality by virtue of its text. The long lined melody of the Serenade sung by Fantasio in the first act, with its increasingly rich modulations culminating in a purple cloud from which, like a droplet of dew, emanates the refrain ‘Moi, pour un peu d’amour’ is enchanting. This lovely subject, now accompanied by the quietest and most subtle pianissimo in gentle three-quarter time, returns as an effective finale of the third act at the end of a lengthy love-duet. Both Fantasio and the Princess sing it unisono with full power in a clipped 6/8 interrupted by blasts from the trombones. This simply comes across as fake and offers merely the vulgar and false sentimentality of the most tasteless and trivialised Italian finales. The second act opens with a coloratura aria for the princess that recalls obvious references of ‘Robert der Teufel’ and ‘Hugenotten’ – works, that apparently Offenbach wish to compete against – sadly, much to his disadvantage. Against such moments in which Offenbach is shown as unable to cope when forced onto unfamiliar territory, ‘Fantasio’ also offers moments that communicate in his individual and unmistakeable language, such as a tiny buffo-duet between the Prince and Marinoni in the first act and in the couplets which come across all the stronger due to their innate simplicity: ‘Reprenez cet habit rose!’ One finds in such moments a shimmer of the elegiac. These along with other musical posies which spring from the unforgiving foreign soil inhabited by ‘Fantasio’ have shown that they cannot replace his natural environment where everything appears to grow with ease and in natural harmony.”