Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz [Gheorghiu & Alagna]

0 of 5 stars

L’Amico Fritz – Lyric comedy in three acts to a libretto by P. Suardon (Nicola Daspura) after the homonymous novel by Emile Erckmann & Alexandre Chatrian

Fritz Kobus – Roberto Alagna
Suzel – Angela Gheorghiu
Beppe – Laura Polverelli
Rabbi David – George Petean
Federico – Yosep Kang
Hanezò – Hyung-Wook Lee
Caterina – Andiòn Fernàndez

Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin

Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin
Alberto Veronesi

Recorded September 2008 at Deutsche Oper Berlin

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: December 2009
CD No: DG 477 8358 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 31 minutes



That “Cavalleria rusticana” has eclipsed virtually all Mascagni’s other operas has led to an assumption that its brand of visceral melodrama represents the composer’s manner across the board. Just as scoring a goal in the first minute can be a mixed blessing for a football team, so this early success may have inspired a public desire for more of the same and therefore to disillusionment. The success of “Cav” led, as the composer himself said, to his being crowned before he became king.

In fact Mascagni’s oeuvre comprises a wide variety of styles. A rarity in the theatre, especially outside Italy, his second opera “L’Amico Fritz” suffers from lacking the blistering dramatic verve of its predecessor but its charming, lightweight ambience was deliberately adopted by the composer, who wished to avoid repeating himself. The public were clearly warned to expect something completely different. “L’Amico Fritz” is described on the title page as a “lyric comedy”. Its three Acts amount to no more than ninety minutes. The overture is significantly entitled “preludietto”, its bouncy staccato figures framing a big tune which rests on a barrel organ drone, immediately establishing the rustic atmosphere of the piece. The music is impressively durchkomponiert, with the initial exchanges between Fritz, his bachelor friends and the moralising Rabbi David set in scherzando fashion to genial fragments of orchestral melody. The structure of set-pieces separated by such conversational passages is satisfying but does not disguise the flimsiness of the opera’s substance.

“L’Amico Fritz” is no masterpiece but it ranks highly as a second opera. It has some delightful set-pieces: Suzel’s Act One aria, Fritz’s ‘Ed anche Beppe amò’, the two duets in Act Two, that known as the ‘Cherry Duet’ and the subsequent biblical one between Suzel and Rabbi David, and the love-duet in Act Three. Beppe’s two arias may be dramatically dispensable but they form part of the endearing colour of the piece, along with the off-stage chorus, the use of the banda and the quotation of Alsatian folk melodies.

The progress from the original novel by Erckmann and Chatrian, through their theatrical version and onto the five-handed operatic libretto is a story of a nationalistically inspired allegory watered-down into a conventional narrative of awakening and fulfilled love, with a gently moralistic spine. The instrumental writing is much more refined than that for the previous torrid tale of adulterous love and violent retribution: some of the episodes for woodwind are exquisite and are done full justice by the principals of the Deutsche Oper orchestra.There are noticeable dramatic and musical affinities. Rabbi David is the Don Alfonso figure, proposing (and winning) a bet. Echoes of Verdi’s ‘middle period’ are evident, not only in the greater general continuity of the music but also in compositional detail: moments in “La forza del destino” and “Don Carlo” are recalled. Mascagni also anticipates some of Puccini’s tricks in Act Two of “La bohème”, premièred five years later, in the introduction to ‘Musetta’s Waltz Song’ and the final march at the Café Momus. Similarities with “Cav” are uncommon, though the introduction with side-drum to Turiddu’s Brindisi is heard again in the later opera.

This recording and the Berlin concert performances from which it comes were no doubt originally intended to be marketed as the product of the “golden couple” pairing of Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu. The two principals first came to the fore in the early 1990s. Their careers converged but now comes the news of their personal and professional parting. It seems that this is their last joint recording. They would have produced a better “L’Amico Fritz” in the early stages of their collaboration, for reasons of, respectively, vocal condition and interpretative approach.

Alagna has been round the block many times since those early Roméos and his lyric tenor has incurred considerable wear and tear. Latterly, in an attempt to enlarge his instrument, he has distorted its natural shape. The effects of too many Manricos are evident here. Mascagni is notorious for the tessitura of his tenor roles which keep the singer consistently around the top of the stave; Alagna responds to this by resorting to a harsh, open sound in Fritz’s forceful music.

Some will find Gheorghiu’s portrayal of the heroine a revelation. Certainly her voice shows little sign of deterioration and every note she sings characteristically demands attention but I have misgivings about her treatment of Suzel’s music in the first Act. The soprano’s timbre seems ill-suited for ‘Son pochi fiori’, the entrance aria of a timid girl whose potential for passion is only nascent. This is music for a light lyric soprano to embrace with winsome tone. In Gheorghiu’s case the low tessitura brings out her ripe and eloquent chest register and encourages her to sing with the cultivated pathos of a Muzio or a Callas. Suzel sounds as if she has already been through suffering. This is a fitting approach for any of Puccini’s tormented women but here out of place in the early stages of a lyric comedy.

This is not to deny that she is affecting in the part: musically speaking she shapes the aria beautifully and the emotive impact of her singing grows as the opera proceeds, while Alagna captures Fritz’s growing emotional confusion well. The ‘Cherry Duet’ is the highlight of the performance. Suzel adds some playfulness to her earlier reticence, while Fritz goes from treating her as an innocent girl to the first stirrings of erotic passion. Gheorghiu’s musicality is well illustrated by her seamless climb to the top A and semiquaver descent at “Sembra salutino coi fior il raggio dell’aurora”. Her addition of an unwritten diminuendo after the forte attack on “Quale incanto” is imaginative and well executed.

In the last Act Alagna offers a mixed bag: vivid interpretation of Fritz’s emotional journey alongside flawed vocalism. The opening scene finds the confirmed bachelor at last taking his feelings seriously in a brief solo, whose mournful tone is ironically juxtaposed with a jovial chorus. Then, inspired by Beppe’s Turkish-style song about the emotional damage done to him by a frustrated love, he gives a heartfelt account of the best-known aria in the piece ‘Ed anche Beppe amò’, forgivably holding the final D flat for an extra bar. Unfortunately the presence of a number of open high notes compromises his intentions. Suzel’s ‘Non mi resta’ is wonderfully vocalised, its phrases moving in tight intervals. Gheorghiu makes this music sound the equal in sentiment at least of anything Puccini wrote for his heroines. Sunlight steadily spreads through her tone in the final duet, at the climax of which Alagna is unwise to join her on the top C which should be her property alone.

EMI has issued HMV’s 1968 recording of the work in its “Great Recordings of the Century” series and, while that accolade may be over-stated, comparative listening does suggest that it is narrowly superior to the new version. In the title role Luciano Pavarotti benefits from his natural command of the Italian language: he responds to individual words with the spontaneity that only a native speaker can and the facial expressions associated with particular phrases are clearly defined to the listener. The voice itself is in pristine condition, judiciously managed but with nothing stinted in the taxing parts of the role.The two leading ladies are more evenly matched. Mirella Freni on HMV presents a more modest, unsophisticated Suzel in Act One but is contrastingly over-forceful at times in Act Two. Vicente Sardinero far outdoes George Petean’s Rabbi David in vocal personality but HMV’s Beppe is a plummy contralto, as against the lively, boyish assumption of the role here by Laura Polverelli. The present orchestra’s leader is a fraction more stylish in the melancholy offstage solo in Act One, the double-stopping and trills particularly impressive. Gianandrea Gavazzeni, the centenary of whose birth occurred in 2009, conducts with a glowing affection for the work which equals that of his principals and with as much appreciation of its structure as Alberto Veronesi in the new recording. The digital sound is admirable but the brightness and clarity of the studio recording is a tribute to HMV’s engineering of over forty years ago.

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