In an age where maximum noise and drama seems to be a prerequisite to an opera’s success, Amico Fritz might be regarded as the cuckoo in the nest. Its pastoral, gentle story-line is likely to pass most opera goers by. Opera Holland Park on the other hand is championing Mascagni’s work in a new production – presenting it as a rarity and more.
Robert Thicknesse, in the Opera Holland Park programme, sums L’Amico Fritz up perfectly when he writes: ‘Fritz is a butterfly among operas, delicate, insubstantial, lovely and endangered’. He urges us to see the OHP production and I can see why. But it certainly has its weaknesses which leap out at you.
Mascagni’s storyline is predictable, at best quirky, and the libretto is as vapid as a weak capucccino. After his success with Cavalleria Rusticana, (a hit opera with cracking libretto) Mascagni had wanted to write an opera where the music was king. The resulting narrative runs as follows – confirmed bachelor Fritz , falls in love with a farmer’s daughter. He fights his urges, tells himself she is too young, is brow-beaten by his Rabbi friend David to get married. He fights it a bit more – And then the inevitable happens.
However – and this is a big however – it’s a long time since I have heard love duets delivered with such passion at Opera Holland Park. Matteo Lippi, playing Fritz, has, as I have said on numerous occasions, the ultimate authentic Italianate style, the sort which takes you immediately to the country most associated with lyrical opera. Lippi performs world-wide but it is in the Italian opera houses that he has learned his métier. When I hear him sing, I am transported back in time to those Italian opera houses that Verdi, Puccini and indeed Mascagni frequented night after night. This time it was to Rome, to the beautiful Teatro Costanzi, on the 31 October 1891, where L’Amico Fritz was performed to thunderous applause at its premier. With his economy of movement on stage, Lippi has the old-fashioned tenor about him, but it is all about the voice and he seems most at home with Mascagni’s vocal lines. He was helped by Katie Bird’s Suzel. Bird’s well controlled, earnest soprano freed up beautifully in the ‘Cherry duet’ and others, her soprano ratcheting up and aligning perfectly with Lippi’s tenor.
Of note too, was Paul Carey Jones’s booming baritone in the part of Rabbi, which he interpreted with gusto. Victoria Simmonds’s mezzo voice really impressed, though it was heard from the orchestra pit, as she stood in for Kezia Bienek as Beppe. My talent antennae also reared their heads when Rose Stachniewska, playing housekeeper walked on stage. Her ringing, clear soprano seemed to indicate that she might be up for more substantial roles. I do hope so.
L’Amico Fritz is far from the perfect opera- but it is definitely worth seeing for the quality of singing and music-alone.
L’Amico Fritz’s remaining performances 24th, 27th, 29th and 31 July at 8pm. 18th July at 2pm (discovery matinée and relaxed performance)