L’amico Fritz, London

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 …mile
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

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 naÔve 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 piËce de rÈsistance; 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

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 HanezÚ, 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

image_description=Anna Leese as Suzel and Eric Margiore as Fritz [Photo by Fritz Curzon courtesy of Opera Holland Park]
product_title=Pietro Mascagni: L’amico Fritz
product_by=Fritz Kobus, a wealthy landowner: Eric Margiore; David, a rabbi: David Stephenson; Federico, a friend to Fritz: Robert Burt; HanezÚ, 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.
product_id=Above: Anna Leese as Suzel and Eric Margiore as Fritz [Photo by Fritz Curzon courtesy of Opera Holland Park]