Monday 26 July 2021

A light touch, yet full of character: Mascagni's L'amico Fritz proves an engaging discovery at Opera Holland Park

Mascagni: L'amico Fritz - Opera Holland Park, 2021 (Photo Ali Wright)
Mascagni: L'amico Fritz - Opera Holland Park, 2021 (Photo Ali Wright)

Mascagni L'amico Fritz; Katie Bird, Matteo Lippi, Paul Carey Jones, dir: Julia Burbach, City of London Sinfonia, cond: Beatrice Venezi; Opera Holland Park

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 24 July 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (
Mascagni's lyrical comedy in a rare London outing which enables us to enjoy the work's engaging character

Mascagni's opera L'amico Fritz was almost as famous and popular as his Cavalleria Rusticana during the composer's lifetime, but since his death in 1945 the opera's hold on the repertoire has waned, its appearances often restricted to famous tenors wanting to sing the 'Cherry Duet', the best-known moment from the opera. Opera Holland Park has kept faith with the piece (possibly the only major London company to have performed the work) and having produced it before (around 10 years ago and 20 years ago), they returned to it this year.

Julia Burbach directed Mascagni's L'amico Fritz at Opera Holland Park with Beatrice Venezi conducting the City of London Sinfonia and we saw the production on Saturday 24 July 2021 (the first time I'd seen the work staged) with Matteo Lippi as Fritz, Katie Bird as Suzel, Paul Carey Jones as David, Kezia Bienek as Beppe plus Themba Mvula, Mike Bradley and Rose Stachniewska. Designs were by Alyson Cummins with the black and white opening act very much channelling 1950s Italian film, perhaps Fellini [see my interview with Julia Burbach where we chat about L'amico Fritz and her upcoming production of Wagner's Die Walküre]

Mascagni turned to L'amico Fritz after Cavalleria Rusticana, deliberately looking for a different type of subject (something he would do throughout his career, each of his operas is very different to the previous). Cavalleria Rusticana and L'amico Fritz have a lot in common, both are based on stories which became plays, both are stories set amongst workers in the countryside. The music for each opera is largely a lyrical, arioso-like dialogue with any set pieces being diagetic - characters singing songs, hymns etc. But whereas Giovanni Verga's story for Cavalleria Rusticana channelled Zola-esque neo-realism and violence, the story by Emile Erckmann and Louis-Alexandre Chatrian had a more gentle feel (and you think of Gounod's Mireille based on another such story). Though the opera simplified things somewhat, in the story it is clear that whilst David is a Rabbi (Alsace had a significant proportion of France's Jewish population) and is friendly with Fritz because David has taught Yiddish to Fritz, Suzel is a Protestant, an Anabaptist in fact.

Mascagni: L'amico Fritz - Katie Bird, Matteo Lippi - Opera Holland Park, 2021 (Photo Ali Wright)
Mascagni: L'amico Fritz - Katie Bird, Matteo Lippi - Opera Holland Park, 2021 (Photo Ali Wright)

Mascagni called the opera a commedia lirica and the pastoral idyll is very much in the tradition of the pastoral comedies which were common in the 18th and earlier 19th century repertory, yet which have rather fallen out of favour during the 20th and 21st centuries. The tension in L'amico Fritz comes purely from whether and how Fritz and Suzel will get together, there is little more angst than that.

Julia Burbach and designer Alyson Cummins gave us a mid-20th century setting with filmic references in the look and feel of Act One, which took advantage of the width of the stage to give us a wide angle view of rooms of the cafe where Fritz (Matteo Lippi) was having his birthday celebrations. Throughout the opera, Burbach made sure that each scene was set within a wider setting, thus giving greater context to the roles for Fritz's friends Beppe (Kezia Bienek), Hanezo (Themba Mvula), Frederico (Mike Bradley) and David the Rabbi (Paul Carey Jones). These roles are somewhat reduced in the opera from the original play, but here the setting made more sense of them.  David the Rabbi is very much the match-maker of the plot, but Burbach introduced another twist in that the relatively small role of Beppe (a travestie gypsy fiddler) was turned into a cupid-like figure (complete with wings!).

Mascagni: L'amico Fritz - Beatrice Venezi, Mike Bradley, Katie Bird, Themba Mvula, Paul Carey Jones - Opera Holland Park, 2021 (Photo Ali Wright)
Mascagni: L'amico Fritz - Beatrice Venezi, Mike Bradley, Katie Bird, Themba Mvula, Paul Carey Jones - Opera Holland Park, 2021 (Photo Ali Wright)

But this was all done with a light touch, allowing the leading characters to come over as richer but still placed in the foreground. The second act was deliberately quite stark, there were no cherries, no cherry trees, simply ladders with Bird's Suzel miming the collection of cherries and the other cast member's responding. It made us use our imaginations and invest in the drama, and without the slightly kitsch image of the cherry trees the act placed greater focus on the singers, the characters and their journey

Katie Bird was a delightful Suzel, in a way quite strong minded and understanding of her feelings but inexperienced in the cafe-society world of Fritz and his friends. It was clear from the cherry duet that Bird's Suzel knew her feelings but held back as Fritz did not respond, the two singers Bird and Matteo Lippi made the whole scene a piece of lyric drama. Fritz is defined almost through his friends, he has little real solo music but Lippi made him engaging and involved us in the character's journey to understanding his love for Suzel. The opera worked so well thanks to the believable relationship that the two singers created.

Around them were a range of vivid characters. Paul Carey Jones, hot from his recent stint as Wotan in Longborough Festival Opera's performances of Wagner's Die Walküre, made David very much one of the boys, joining in with the hi-jinks of Federico (Mike Bradley) and Hanezo (Themba Mvula), yet never shirking his obsession with the need to marry people off. It was done with a light touch, and charmed. Bradley and Mvula made the two friends a complete delight and their antics (sometimes with David, sometimes with Beppe) created an engaging backdrop for the action. Beppe is a somewhat small role, but Burbach's expansion in the production enabled Kezia Bienek to really work her theatrical charm. Rose Stchniewska provided strong yet discreet support as Caterina.

Mascagni: L'amico Fritz - Rose Satchniewska, Mike Bradley, Themba Mvula, Kezia Bienek, Paul Carey-Jones - Opera Holland Park, 2021 (Photo Ali Wright)
Mascagni: L'amico Fritz - Rose Satchniewska, Mike Bradley, Themba Mvula, Kezia Bienek, Paul Carey-Jones - Opera Holland Park, 2021 (Photo Ali Wright)

Conductor Beatrice Venezi had made her UK debut at the beginning of this run and I certainly hope she will be back soon. She drew fine, idiomatic playing from the City of London Sinfonia who clearly relished the complexities of Mascagni's score with its use of instrumental interludes to develop the drama. They were playing an orchestral reduction by Tony Banks from Pocket Publications, but we hardly notice so strong was the character Venezi drew from the players.

Mascagani's opera is somewhat slight by contemporary standards, yet in the right hands it charms, engages and more. Burbach and her team manage just the right combination of strong character and light touch, the emphasis on the emotional journey rather than too much picaresque padding. 

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