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Performances

Anna Leese as Suzel and Eric Margiore as Fritz [Photo by Fritz Curzon courtesy of Opera Holland Park]
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.

Pietro Mascagni: L’amico Fritz

Fritz Kobus, a wealthy landowner: Eric Margiore; David, a rabbi: David Stephenson; Federico, a friend to Fritz: Robert Burt; Hanezò, a friend to Fritz: Simon Wilding; Suzel, daughter of a tenant of Fritz: Anna Leese; Beppe, Fritz's friend, a gypsy: Patricia Orr; Caterina, a servant: Susan Young. Conductor: Stuart Stratford. Director: Annilese Miskimmon. Designer: Nicky Shaw. Lighting director: Mark Jonathan. Costume supervisor: David Thorne. Opera Holland Park, Friday 10th June, 2011.

Above: Anna Leese as Suzel and Eric Margiore as Fritz [Photo by Fritz Curzon courtesy of Opera Holland Park]

 

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.

Claire Seymour

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