14 Jun 2011
L’amico Fritz, London
Think verismo and one imagines melodramatic, often violent plots which peer unflinchingly into the soul of every character.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.
On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.
Here is one of the next new great conductors. That’s a bold statement, but even the L.A. Times agrees: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s appointment “is the biggest news in the conducting world.” But Ms. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will be getting a lot of weight on her shoulders.
Manitoba Opera chose to open its 44th season by going for the belly laughs — literally — as it notably presented its inaugural production of Verdi’s Falstaff.
Macabre and moonstruck, Schubert as Goth, with Stuart Jackson, Marcus Farnsworth and James Baillieu at the Wigmore Hall. An exceptionally well-planned programme devised with erudition and wit, executed to equally high standards.
On November 20, 2016, Arizona Opera completed its run of Antonín Dvořák’s fairy Tale opera, Rusalka. Loosely based on Hand Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Joshua Borths staged it with common objects such as dining room chairs that could be found in the home of a child watching the story unfold.
Consistently overshadowed by the neighboring Bayreuth, the far less stuffy Oper Leipzig (Wagner’s birthplace) programmed after forty years their first complete Ring Cycle.
You didn’t have to know the Bugs Bunny oeuvre to appreciate Opera San Jose’s enchanting Il barbiere di Sivigila, but it sure enhanced your experience if you did.
If there was ever any doubt that Puccini’s Manon is on a road to nowhere, then the closing image of Jonathan Kent’s 2014 production of Manon Lescaut (revived here for the first time, by Paul Higgins) leaves no uncertainty.
Many opera singers are careful to maintain an air of political neutrality. Not so mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who is outspoken about causes she holds dear. Her latest project, a very personal response to the 2015 terror attacks in Paris, puts her audience through the emotional wringer, but also showers them with musical rewards.
I wonder if Karl Amadeus Hartmann saw something of himself in the young Simplicius Simplicissimus, the eponymous protagonist of his three-scene chamber opera of 1936. Simplicius is in a sort of ‘Holy Fool’ who manages to survive the violence and civil strife of the Thirty Years War (1618-48), largely through dumb chance, and whose truthful pronouncements fall upon the ears of the deluded and oppressive.
For its second opera of the 2016-17 season Lyric Opera of Chicago has staged Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in a production seen at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the Grand Théâtre de Genève.
Akhnaten is the third in composer Philip Glass’s trilogy of operas about people who have made important contributions to society: Albert Einstein in science, Mahatma Gandhi in politics, and Akhnaten in religion. Glass’s three operas are: Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten.
Shakespeare re-imagined for the very Late Baroque, with Bampton Classical Opera at St John's Smith Square. "Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare....the God of Our Idolatory". So wrote David Garrick in his Ode to Shakespeare (1759) through which the actor and showman marketed Shakespeare to new audiences, fanning the flames of "Bardolatory". All Europe was soon caught up in the frenzy.
Think verismo and one imagines melodramatic, often violent plots which peer unflinchingly into the soul of every character.
We expect the white-hot intensity of passion, bloody vendettas, blazing fury, recklessness and danger.
It’s therefore surprising to find Pietro Mascagni, the composer of one of the classic examples of this naturalistic genre, following up the trail-breaking Cavalleria rusticana just one year later with L’amico Fritz, a gentle bucolic tale of unrequited love … not a flashing dagger or bloody assassination in sight! Moreover, realism seems not to have been a priority: the setting is ‘somewhere’ in Alsace, the period ‘some time’ in the nineteenth century, and any contemporary political tensions between Christians, Anabaptists and Jews are overlooked in the interest of a happy ending.
In an interesting programme article, Robert Thicknesse reveals that it was actually Mascagni’s intention to write a work that was as different to Cavalleria as possible: “I want to take a different toad, particularly seeing that too many newspapers, praising Cavalleria, attributed all its success to the libretto. For that reason, l I want a simple libretto, something almost insubstantial, so the opera will be judged entirely on its music.”
In the event, the text by Nicola Daspuro, with additions by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti (based on the French novel L'ami Fritz by Émile Erckmann and Pierre-Alexandre Chatrian) was judged by Verdi to be “the worst libretto I’ve ever seen”, while composer Antonio Camps declared that the opera was sure to fail as, lacking passion, it would never enrapture its audiences. However, after performances in 1891 in five Italian cities, it was successfully exported to Hamburg (conducted by Gustav Mahler), Berlin, Vienna, Prague, arriving at the Royal Opera House, London in 1892 and evening travelling to Australia in 1893.
Certainly, it’s a slightly daft affair with little dramatic tension, the favourable denouement never in doubt. Confirmed bachelor, Fritz Kobus, a wealthy landowner, professes a disdain for marriage; but, his rabbi friend, David, suspects that Fritz is developing amorous feelings for Suzel, the daughter of one of his tenants, and suggests to his friend that she would make a good bride. Protesting that she is too young to marry, Fritz bets David on of his vineyards that he himself will never marry.
When Fritz visits Suzel in the countryside, the idyllic spring air and floral scents begin to work their erotic magic, but tentative romantic leanings are interrupted by the arrival of Fritz’s friends who ask Fritz to show them the farm, leaving Suzel and David alone. Suzel is embarrassed by the rabbi’s suggestion that she should marry; later, when David intimates to Fritz that he’s found the perfect husband for Suzel, the two men argue.
By now Fritz has realised that he has fallen in love; he returns to town but cannot banish thoughts of Suzel — even the songs of his gypsy friend, Beppe, fail to lift his spirits. Suzel too is in despair, despite David’s reassurances that all will be well. But after further intrigue and machinations by David, a passionate declaration of love ensues. Fritz has lost his wager; but, David announces that he is going to give his prize — Fritz’s vineyard — to Suzel as a wedding present.
This delightful Opera Holland Park production clearly demonstrated why Mascagni was right to have faith in this simple, sentimental divertissement. Verismo was never a merely dramatic genre, but also a musical one, characterised by passionate declamation by solo voices, emotionally charged melodies, and affecting harmonies and modulations. And, in Mascagni’s score glorious melodies tumble one after the other in an endless stream of beautiful lyricism, coloured by imaginative harmonic twists and turns, enriched by instrumentation.
Sensibly, director Annilese Miskimmon resisted the temptation to tamper unnecessarily with the wafer-thin libretto, transferring the action to the 1950s — Fritz is a property developer, marketing domestic tranquillity and bliss: “The perfect home for your perfect wife” . In so doing, she emphasises the fresh charm and exuberance of the opera. The retro designers by Nicky Shaw are both enchanting and clever. Dividing the Act 1 stage into a typists’ pool, reception and boss’s office is a neat trick which allows for some effective juxtapositions and asides. And, the slick transformation from corporate office to rural idyll, as the recorded nightingale trilled, fully deserved its round of appreciative applause.
Moreover, whatever the work’s dramatic or musical merits, it’s worth seeing this Opera Holland Park production just to hear Anna Leese as Suzel, as she flawlessly captures the coy grace of the naïve peasant girl. From her first appearance, tentatively clutching a bouquet of violets for the birthday boy, Fritz, it was clear that Suzel’s gauche simplicity, so incongruous among the sharp office suits and Mondrians, would triumph. Leese’s soprano soared creamily and effortlessly above the fairly large orchestral forces — no mean feat in this auditorium. And, her transformation from inexperienced country lass to flourishing young woman was totally credible.
The ‘cherry duet’ between Fritz and Suzel in Act 2 is the opera’s pièce de résistance; if the plot is a sort of ‘vengeance-free’ Romeo and Juliet, this duet is suggestive of the mystery and enchantment of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
“So we grew together,
Like to a double Cherry, seeming parted,
But yet a union in partition;
Two lovely berries moulded on one stem.”
Eric Margiore certainly looked the part of the gallant, handsome bachelor, and brought a strong stage presence to Fritz; but, despite his pleasing lyric tenor, he didn’t quite have the stamina required. Though he phrased the lines intelligently, he occasionally sounded strained and rather rough-edged, especially in the Act 3 homage to Love, ‘O amore, o bella luce del core’.
David is an ambiguous role, at times a comic schemer, elsewhere a surprisingly hostile meddler. David Stephenson’s interpretation was engaging and convincing, and his Act 2 duet with Fritz dramatic and compelling. Patricia Orr sang the en travesti role of the gypsy fiddler Beppe with panache; her birthday song to Fritz is preceded by an extended offstage violin solo — here rendered with character and flair by Iwona Boesche — and the quick switch between the two performers was deftly done. In the smaller roles of Federico and Hanezò, Fritz’s friends, Robert Burt and Simon Wilding provided strong support.
Conducting an alert and precise City of London Sinfonia, Stuart Stratford made much of the score’s expressive details. In particular, the orchestra relished the both the sweetness and the drama of the Intermezzo which precedes Act 3.
The happy ending may never be in doubt, but what it lacks in dramatic tension is more than compensated for by the opera’s glorious, irresistible music. This romantic fable set in an idyllic rural world is just the thing to beguile one’s cares.