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.
Donna abbandonata would have been a good title for the first concert of Temple Music’s 2017 Song Series. Indeed, mezzo-soprano Christine Rice seems to be making a habit of playing abandoned women.
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
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.
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.