I have a personal love for this non-repertoire opera: forty years ago it was the first opera I ever conducted - as a conducting student at the Guildhall School of Music in London. I also conducted another production a few years later in Cape Town, rather bizarrely (for me at least) in Afrikaans as Vriend Fritz
. It’s a tuneful, pleasant work, no profound message contained therein, indeed the plot is nothing more than an excuse to sing lots of charming music, the most popular of which is the so-called ‘Cherry duet’, hence the presence of that fruit on the box cover.
Mascagni’s name was given a meteoric boost on 17 May 1890 with his first opera, Cavalleria rusticana
; in fact one could almost say that thereafter it was downhill all the way. Not quite true, though of the seventeen works he wrote for the stage only L’amico Fritz
have survived on the (principally) Italian stage in the hard-core repertoire. Mascagni did not help his cause by constantly shifting his operatic formulae. He immediately shied away from serving up the ingredients of Cavalleria rusticana
in another opera, and determined on something poles apart in terms of drama and music. He does not seem to have heard of the phrase, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Despite this, and helped no doubt by the presence of Calvé and De Lucia in the cast, it scored a hit at its premiere on 31 October 1891.
L’ amico Fritz
is a lyric comedy, the outer acts set in a town house, the central one on a rural farm. The wealthy Fritz, a young bon viveur
who forswears marriage, is a hedonist. His friend David, a rabbi, challenges him with a wager, one of Fritz’s own vineyards, that he will soon wed. The scene then moves to Fritz’s farm, where Suzel (daughter of one of Fritz’s farm workers) is preparing to pick cherries, soon joined by Fritz in duet and each duly falls in love. Fritz and his friends go for a drive, leaving David alone with Suzel. He is tired so she offers him water, an act, he says, which recalls the biblical tale of Isaac and Rebecca. Covered in embarrassment at his suggestion that she herself will soon be a bride, David goes on his meddling way by telling Fritz that he too will soon marry. His misogyny undermined, Fritz is furious and storms back to town, leaving Suzel confused and distressed. All is resolved in the last act, when David forces the issue by telling Fritz that Suzel is now to marry a local man. When she arrives each reveal their unhappiness and love for each other, David, having won the bet, claims the vineyard and promptly bestows it on Suzie as her dowry.
Despite the thinness of plot - specifically demanded by Mascagni - and lack of any theatricality (the outbursts which do occur never quite convince), there are some sublime moments beyond the obvious central duet. The unlikely gypsy character Beppe, whose solo violin playing makes him worthy of a concert virtuoso career, is a travesty role sung with élan here by Laura Polverelli - a marked improvement on her two recorded predecessors. The unnamed violinist plays the offstage protracted solo with style; a director’s nightmare to fill the gap onstage. This is typical instrumental verismo
from Mascagni, also the exotic colour and melodic shape of the clarinet and flute solos in Suzel’s second act aria ‘Bel cavalier’ and solo trombone elsewhere in the second act. As the rabbi David, a serious version of Mozart/Da Ponte’s Don Alfonso, George Petean makes the most of his second act duets with Suzel. Conductor Alberto Veronesi works hard to secure a convincing performance. The German orchestra produces local colour - the opera is after all set in Alsace, then part of the German empire - so too the chorus and offstage band which at one point passes by like an Alsatian ‘Sally Army’.
This live recording of a concert performance in Berlin almost stands comparison with EMI’s 1968 version with Freni, Pavarotti and Sardinero under Gavazzeni - after its Covent Garden production - while Alagna and Gheorghiu themselves included the ‘Cherry Duet’ on their 1995 recital album. There was one earlier (1942) recording with Tagliavini and Tassinari. As to this disc, Gheorghiu’s voice will be a matter of taste, perhaps too Callas-dark and mature for the young Suzel, its pitch initially suspect in middle and bottom range, but the outbursts which carry her up are glorious. Alagna, even without Pavarotti’s creaminess, makes an ideal Fritz. There’s an irony here that when Mr and Mrs Alagna recorded this opera, they were separating, so their emotions were heading in the diametrically opposite direction from the opera in which two young people are brought together to live happily ever after. Though they clearly buried their differences sufficiently to sing an impassioned ‘Cherry Duet’, Ms Gheorghiu’s sobs at the end of act two sound highly unconvincing.
Given that the second CD is barely half an hour, it’s a pity that DG could not add 45 minutes of excerpts from other Mascagni operas, or even a selection of orchestral intermezzi and overtures.