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.
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.
San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).
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.