L’amico Fritz, Opera Holland Park, OHP, June 2011

If you’ve never seen L’amico Fritz before, it’s worth going because this opera contains some lovely music by the same composer who gave us Cavalleria Rusticana. And if you’ve seen it before, it’s also worth going because you will hear Anna Leese in the main role of Suzel, and she’s stunning. She rises effortlessly over double fortissimos in the orchestra, with phrasing that gives huge emotional power to her singing.

This is Mascagni’s second opera after his great success with Cavalleria Rusticana, and Stuart Stratford’s conducting of the City of London Sinfonia brought out its high moments most beautifully. There are also some very light moments, and it occurred to me that since the composer wanted never to repeat himself and always do something new, why not write for the ballet. His music certainly has a rhythmic pulse that would suit a choreographer, and after all, Tchaikovsky wrote opera and ballet at the same time as Mascagni produced this piece, to say nothing of Stravinsky and Prokofiev later.

Fritz and Suzel, photo Fritz Curzon

The story of L’amico Fritz might work rather well as a ballet, but as an opera it suffers from a weak libretto, and in an excellent essay in the programme, Robert Thicknesse says Verdi thought it “the worst libretto I’ve ever seen”. The plot is roughly that Fritz, a wealthy young landowner in Alsace, is uninterested in marriage, and has never felt the pangs of love. He sees the pretty Suzel only as a friend, but David the Rabbi wants to marry Fritz off, and there are various Biblical quotes, such as that man is not meant to live alone. Eventually love is awakened and Fritz is distraught to learn that Suzel will marry someone else. We never see who that is, if he exists, but Fritz is now more than ready to declare his love … and they all lived happily ever after. Dull stuff for an opera, but lovely music, and some glorious singing.

Eric Margiore sang lyrically as Fritz, giving a fine soliloquy at the start of Act III. David Stephenson gave a strong portrayal of his friend David, the Rabbi, and Patricia Orr was terrific in the travesti role of Beppe, showing in Act III that he too had felt the anguish of love. One rather clever aspect of the production was that Beppe, a musician and protégé of Fritz, not only sings but plays a beautiful solo violin. The switch between singer and violinist is almost imperceptible, and I was surprised the violinist’s name wasn’t displayed in the programme. In fact it was Iwona Boesche, listed merely as the last of the First Violins. Both she and Patricia Orr were super, but the star of the evening was surely Anna Leese as Suzel. She is just 30 years old, so she presumably has a great career ahead of her, and I very much look forward to hearing here again.

The production by Annalese Miskimmon, with colourful designs by Nicky Shaw and lighting by Mark Jonathan, places things in the 1950s, with Fritz as a young developer. His office is clean, modern, well-organised, and he builds pretty homes in the country. Messy things like emotions are kept well away, at least for a while, but when the high moments come they’re worth waiting for.

Performances continue only until June 25, so call for tickets immediately — for more details click here.

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