On November 14, 2021, the Teatro Grattacielo in New York presented a semi-scenic production of “L’Amico Fritz” by Pietro Mascagni. Unlike his hit “Cavalleria rusticana”, Mascagni’s second opera orbit the borders of the standard repertoire.
I give the company credit for bringing this somewhat charming opera back to life, but there were hiccups in the musical performance and elsewhere that marred the production, leaving me with the impression that the show was not quite ready to open.
Today’s audiences have encountered history taken up in television and film treatments; a guy bets with his confirmed single friend that he can find the perfect romantic match and surprise – the single person falls in love and gets married.
Although billed as a lyrical comedy, hilarity does not ensue after making the bet. On the contrary, there is anger and not a few tears, but no one dies, which, given the time’s penchant for tragedy, gives him a vague sense of lightness.
The first act begins with the main character, the wealthy landowner, Fritz Kobus, having lunch with his friend David, a rabbi. David is the local matchmaker, always coaxing Fritz into agreeing to pay young couples’ dowry. After a few trips back and forth, Fritz agrees to pay for the rabbi’s last game.
His friends, Federico and Hanzeò, quickly joined Fritz, and we learn that it is Fritz’s birthday. Suzel, the daughter of one of Fritz’s tenants, arrives with a bouquet as a gift. Another friend of Fritz’s arrives when the four hear the passionate sounds of gypsy Beppe playing his violin. Music appeals to everyone, especially Suzel, who is ecstatic in front of the free sensuality of music, something that does not go unnoticed in Fritz. David tells Fritz that Suzel would make a good wife, and he intends to find her a partner. Fritz doesn’t like Suzel to marry someone because she is rather young, but nothing prevents David from devoting himself to his hobby. Fritz, fed up with David’s twinning concert, reaffirms his commitment to celibacy and bets on one of his vineyards to prove that he will never fall prey to marriage.
Act two is a pastoral, with Suzel going to the orchard to pick cherries. Fritz joins her and mentions that she may soon become a wife. Suzel, embarrassed, leaves Fritz behind, upsetting him. David (and his other friends) join Fritz in the orchard. David once again brings up the subject of marriage with Suzel and thinks he has the perfect man. But, having fallen in love with the young woman, Fritz is even more irritated by David’s words. So he goes off in a whisper. Suzel returns and finds David in the orchard where the two tell the biblical story of Rebecca and Eliezer (Genesis chapter 24), in which Eliezer finds Issac a woman. This upsets Suzel because she has fallen in love with Fritz and does not want to be matched with anyone other than him.
The concluding act opens with a depressed Fritz walking around his dining room. Beppe arrives, trying to cheer Fritz up with a song, but it has the opposite effect and he dismisses the gypsy. Enter David, whose news kicks the bachelor: Suzel is engaged and his father will soon come to ask for Fritz’s blessing. Fritz panics and angrily refuses to allow the marriage and leaves. Suzel now joins David, reiterating that she can’t bear the thought of marrying someone she doesn’t like, but the rabbi assures her that everything will be fine. Fritz returns to the dining room, where he and Suzel express their love for each other and their desire to get married. The wedding takes place there, and David wins the vineyard. But in a magnanimous gesture, David offers the vineyard to Suzel as a wedding gift.
Single sworn in one day, married man the next day.
Verdi was not a friend of “Fritz”
The libretto by P. Saudon (Nicola Daspuro) is based on the French novel “L’ami Fritz” by Émile Erckmann and Pierre-Alexandre Chatrian seemed ridiculous to one of Mascagni’s contemporaries.
The great maestro Verdi did not fare well after reading a copy of “Fritz” sent to him by his publisher Casa Ricordi.
“Thanks for the Fritz score you sent me. I’ve read many, many bad booklets in my life, but never have I read such a stupid booklet as this.
Mascagni was experimenting with buffa and seria ingredients, and in the end, the text was neither. Not all experiments are successful. Everything is just repetitive and bland, and there’s not much at stake for any of the characters. Fritz is a wealthy landowner who regularly pays his tenants’ dowry. He puts one vineyard on the line when he bets against David, but that implies that he has more. A protagonist who has little to lose and only encounters minor difficulties in achieving his goal is irrelevant and a trivial story.
What “Fritz” has for him is in the score. The melodies are not dull. They are evocative and exotic. The extended violin solo that signals Beppe’s arrival is smoky and sensual. The oboe solo from the first scene, Act Two, sets the scene for the pastoral scene wonderfully. Big wins happen in the orchestra, and while nothing is as lush or masterful as Puccini, there is a lot to admire.
There are well-designed passages, mostly optimistic; Beppe’s gypsy motif is a highlight, with the aforementioned duo and the pleasant Intermezzo. The “Cherry Duet” is a highlight among the generally uninspiring vocal lines.
The Very Good
Soprano Alexandra Razskazoff caught my attention and held it back. His voice demanded it. When it came time to cut, the spinto sliced the final of the tutti with a sonorous diamond blade.
Her portrayal of Suzel was pure and warm, performing the “Cherry Duet” with endearing innocence. I wanted the girl in the story to find love and happiness. I cared, and that wasn’t the case with all the characters.
The tenor John Bellemer, in the title role, sang admirably, but the projection was not always there during the ensemble numbers. He was very kind and paired well with Razskazoff during “Cherry Duet,” and his fits with David showed fire in voice and acting. He was versatile, but I wasn’t invested in Fritz’s fate, not that he had a lot of it. He has sworn to himself to be single and suddenly falls in love. Yes he will lose a of his vines, but there is not much else involved. This is where I wanted to see a more developed Fritz. The lemonade had to be made from the lemon which is the libretto of P. Saudon.
Baritone Marcus Deloach, as David, was entertaining. He has a pleasant and rich voice, and his portrayal of the matchmaking rabbi kept my interest, although as a character it wasn’t necessary to provoke romance between Fritz and Suzel, the two were already falling in love during the first one. act. Deloach kept me engaged with the sense of playfulness he brought to the role.
Beppe. I wish “L’Amico Fritz” had more Beppe. Mascagni has given some of the most interesting music to the fun and humorous melodramatic gypsy that mezzo-soprano Mariya Kaganskaya has brought to life.
The semi-scenic performance included projections of different kinds. There were cherry blossoms and whimsical, bouncy cherries accompanied by images of Suzel and Fritz floating in the air, hand in hand. Most of all, I found it distracting. The most confusing projections performed during the Preludietto and Intermezzo were collages whose meaning I couldn’t make out. In my eyes and in my mind, they were too abstract for the subject. There was also a poorly executed real-time screening of the soloists interspersed throughout the show as the cameraman struggled to keep up with the singers and constantly needed to refocus the frame.
I understand what directors Malena Dayen and Stefanos Koroneos were attempting, but it felt rambling and aside from the cherry-related projections, on the surface, it had nothing to do with the story.
It’s unfortunate to say this, but the Queens Symphony Orchestra under the direction of James Bagwell struggled from the start. The pace was irregular, as were the dynamics. The beauty I spoke of in Mascagni’s music was terribly spoiled. The whole lacked cohesion and precision. The sections were out of tune. The high notes of the strings and winds (especially at the start of the work) could sound garish instead of blending into the rest of the ensemble. Either the band needed a few more intense rehearsals, or the instrumentalists were overwhelmed. I doubt it is the latter.
Either way, the responsibility ends with the person on the podium.
There was a serious communication problem when Razskazoff started his line in “Tutto tace”, just after the “Cherry Duet”. The orchestra got lost, but the soprano struggled to keep in tune with the musicians. There were also some notable mistakes in her third act aria that could have derailed her, but Razskazoff confidently pulled it off without missing a beat.
I walked into the theater excited to hear Mascagni’s melodies and left very disappointed and moved for the singers, who were much better prepared but still mastered by the orchestra.
Works that lie on the fringes of the repertoire need to be relaunched convincingly and as flawlessly as possible, because if done poorly they reinforce the idea that opera must remain in the pasture where it has been relegated. .
As an opera, “Fritz” may never have set the world on fire, but that doesn’t mean it should ignite. Thanks to bad musical direction, it almost happened.