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.
The mysteries and myths surrounding Mozart’s Requiem Mass - left unfinished at his death and completed by his pupil, Franz Xaver Süssmayr - abide, reinvigorated and prolonged by Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus as directed on film by Miloš Forman. The origins of the work’s commission and composition remain unknown but in our collective cultural and musical consciousness the Requiem has come to assume an autobiographical role: as if Mozart was composing a mass for his own presaged death.
I saw two operas consecutively at Oper Koln. First, the utterly bewildering Lucia di Lammermoor; then Thilo Reinhardt’s thrilling Tosca. His staging was pure operatic joy with some Hitchcockian provocations.
Bernard Haitink’s monumental Bruckner and Mahler performances with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO) got me hooked on classical music. His legendary performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in C-minor, where in the Finale loosened plaster fell from the Concertgebouw ceiling, is still recounted in Amsterdam.
Karita Mattila was born to sing Emilia Marty, the diva around whom revolves Leoš Janáček's The Makropulos Affair (Věc Makropulos). At Prom 45, she shone all the more because she was conducted by Jirí Belohlávek and performed alongside a superb cast from the National Theatre, Prague, probably the finest and most idiomatic exponents of this repertoire.
‘Two outrageous operas in one crazy evening,’ reads the bill. Hyperbole? Certainly not when the operas are two of Jacques Offenbach’s more off-the-wall bouffoneries and when the company is Opera della Luna whose artistic director, Jeff Clarke, is blessed with the comic imagination and theatrical nous to turn even the most vacuous trivia into a sharp and sassy riotous romp.
This performance of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Glyndebourne was so good that it was the highlight of the whole season, making the term ‘revival’ utterly irrelevant. Jakub Hrůša is always stimulating, but on this occasion, his conducting was so inspired that I found myself closing my eyes in order to concentrate on what he revealed in Britten's quirky but brilliant score. Eyes closed in this famous production by Peter Hall, first seen in 1981?
A staged piano recital and an opera as a concert. Pianist András Schiff accompanied the Salzburg Marionette Theater at the Mozarteum Grosser Saal and Anna Netrebko sang Manon Lescaut at the Grosses Festspielhaus.
On August 4, 2016, soprano Leah Crocetto and accompanist Tamara Sanikidze gave a recital at the Scottish Rite Center in Santa Fe New Mexico. A winner of the Metropolitan Opera Auditions and the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Contest, this year Crocetto was singing Donna Anna in Santa Fe Opera’s excellent Don Giovanni.
On July 31, 2016, against the ethereal beauty of the main hall in the Scottish Rite Center, soprano Angela Meade and pianist Joe Illick gave a recital offering both opera and art songs ranging in origin from early nineteenth century Europe to mid twentieth century America. Many in the audience probably remembered Meade’s recent excellent portrayal of Norma at Los Angeles Opera.
When more is definitely more, and less would indeed be less. Two of the biggest names in Italian theater art collide in an eponymous theater.
It was the fifth Proms Chamber Music concert at Cadogan Hall this season, and we were celebrating Shakespeare’s 400th. And, given the extent and range of the composers and artists, and the diversity and profundity of the musical achievement inspired by the Bard, we could probably keep celebrating in this fashion ad infinitum.
Each August the bleak and leaky, 12,000 seat Arena Adriatica (home of the famed Pesaro basketball team) magically transforms itself into an improvised opera house that boasts the ultimate in opera chic — exemplary Rossini production standards for its now twelve hundred seats.
This highly enjoyable Prom, part of 2016’s ‘Proms at ’ mini-series, took as its guiding concept the reopening of London’s theatres following the Restoration, focusing in particular upon musical and dramatic responses to Shakespeare. Purcell, rightly, loomed large, with John Blow and Matthew Locke joining him. Receiving their Proms premieres were the excerpts from Timon of Athens and those from Locke’s The Tempest.
With all the bombast of the presidential campaigns rattling in our heads, with invectives being exchanged and measured discussion all but absent, how utterly lovely to retreat and relax into the harmonious soundscape and well-reasoned debate posed in Strauss’ Capriccio, on magnificent display at Santa Fe Opera.
When we entered the Crosby Theatre for Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette the stage was surprisingly dominated by a somber, semi-circular black mausoleum, many chambers inscribed with scrambled names of US Civil War era dead.
Molten passions were seething just below the icy Nordic exterior of Santa Fe Opera’s wholly masterful production of Barber’s Vanessa.
Farce is probably the most difficult of dramatic comedy sub-genres to put across. A farce got up in the stately robes of opera sets its presenters an even higher bar. Presenting an operatic farce on a notoriously chilly and cavernous auditorium is to risk catastrophe.
Fan interest began raging when Santa Fe Opera engaged venerable artist Patricia Racette to make her role debut as Minnie in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West.
A funny thing happened on the way to Andalusia.
The tale of a Syrian donkey driver. And, yes, the donkey stole the show! The competition was intense — the Vienna Philharmonic and the Grosses Festspielhaus in full production regalia for starters.
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.