Pietro Mascagni: L’amico Fritz (1891)

Opera in 3 acts, Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes. This was Mascagni’s second performed opera after the smash hit Cavalleria Rusticana, but it isn’t a Verismo opera, in fact far from it. Interestingly, given Mascagni’s later ties to Mussolini, most of the characters in Fritz are very sympathetic Jewish characters and the story is a rather life affirming tale in which the at first cynical landowner bets one of his vineyards on his eternal bachelorhood, only for it to end up as his bride’s wedding gift from the rabbi. The video is a live performance with Roberto Alagna in the title role and Angela Gheorghiu as Suzel. Since it is also my birthday today I will give you another selection of the opera with the 2002 Livorno production with Jose Bros and Dimitra Theodossiou. It is slightly longer at 95 minutes but you can follow my comment times just as easily.

PLOT: Late 19th century, Alsace. Fritz is a wealthy landowner and he discusses with the local rabbi the upcoming betrothal of the daughter of one of his renters, Suzel. A gypsy musician arrives and you can take it from there.

LOOK OUT FOR:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MeB_BjbomSc (Alagna and Gheorghiu)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uah8bnDG68U (Bros and Theodossiou)

ACT 1: The dinning room of Fritz’s home, his birthday. (26 minutes)

8: The prelude is at first a bit jumpy and crude, then it becomes more settled down and crude. The finale third is a more romantic theme but it ends on the jumpy crude bit. The dialogue between Fritz and David about the former’s disdain for marriage (although he is more than willing to provide a dowry for a poor bridal couple) quickly brings us into the birthday dinner (two guests?). There is a melody (up then descending down) which reappears at least three times in about as many minutes which is worth mentioning but the first number comes when Suzel is announced and offers Fritz a bouquet of flowers for his birthday in a rather passionate aria **. She and Fritz have a rather nice exchange in which he invites her to stay, she accepts, the rabbi returns and they all clink glasses. Beppo the Gypsy musician starts up to an almost parody but good violin solo. After about a minute and a half of this, Fritz notices that Suzel is crying. Not an amazing melody, but it is dramatically effecting.

17: Beppo (mezzo-soprano) finally actually arrives and sings a rather good song about what a great guy Fritz is **. The number works on everyone, especially Suzel who makes a not so quick exit and includes a brief reprisal of a theme from the prelude.

22: Fritz and David argue about the importance of marriage, the latter giving it a rather dramatic defence **. The two men then bet one of Fritz’s vineyards that he will never wed. Then there is a band playing outside in Fritz’s honour which rapidly turns into a chorus and then some children come into the house playing. Curtain.

ACT 2: The courtyard of a farm, cherry trees nearby. (35 minutes)

0: The introduction is a little bit better than for the previous act *, Suzel is going to pick cherries while the workers go out to the fields. Around five minutes in half of the prelude to the act is reprised since no one is on stage.

6: Suzel has a lite romance with a slightly Seraglio tinge to it *.

8: Fritz arrives and he and Suzel embark on a rather lovely number as they pick cherries called the “Cherry Duet”, what else *** in which they discuss to a parade of dancing orchestral themes the beauty of nature, the dawn, flowers, cherries….

18: David arrives, Beppo as well and the two guests from the previous act. The music is bouncing around everywhere until it settles down and David strikes up a conversation with Suzel *. It has an oddly church organ-ish theme going on, maybe because they are discussing the story of the marriage of Isaac from the perspective of Rebekah. He scares her off when he suggests that she get married.

27.30: Fritz returns and the two men get into a mild argument when David suggests that he has a man picked out for Suzel.

30: Fritz realizes that he is in love with Suzel **.

32: A whimsical gypsy theme * propels the rest of the act as Fritz says good-bye to his friends and David speaks to Suzel one more time.  She is left alone to hear the women in the fields and is very distraught as the curtain falls.

ACT 3: A room in Fritz’s house. (32 minutes)

0: Menacing prelude (actually technically it is an intermezzo). It eventually turns ponderous *.

5: Fritz is terrified of losing Suzel, the chorus can be heard outside **.

9: Beppo arrives to the jovial theme in act 1 as the party started and tries to cheer up Fritz. It doesn’t work, but the song is okay *.

12: Beppo leaves and Fritz ponders his love again, this time very broodingly but it starts  to become passionate **.

19: David arrives and claims that Suzel is engaged and her father is about to seek Fritz’s blessing. Fritz is enraged by this and rushes out, Suzel arrives with some fruit for Fritz and she and the Rabbi have yet another conversation about matrimony, this time shorter. There is a hint of the prelude to act 2 and then Suzel emotes, big time **.

21: The L.O.V.E. duet, during which both their defences break down and they confess their mutual love for each other. It starts off as agitated recitative but it grows into a crescendo and Fritz opens up the room to the light again **.

31: The play out: David, Beppo, and the rest all bask in the glow of the lovers. David wins his wager and Fritz loses a vineyard, but the Rabbi gives his winnings to the bride as a wedding present to everyone’s approval. After a nice final homage to love * there is a surprisingly traditional end to the opera.

COMMENTS:

Fritz is a rare example of an opera that has a very charming and heartwarming storyline. One would assume that the whole wager issue would cheapen the awakening of love but the attraction between Fritz and Suzel is easily believable and their eventual wedding will inspire joy in any audience. I kind of wish I were one of Fritz’s guests at his birthday party too! The music does have its highlights: the famous “Cherry duet” is probably the heart of the opera both musically and structurally and both Fritz and Suzel get at least three good if not great arias along with they ever fine duets. Beppo provides some exotic “gypsy” colour and Rabbi David is a welcomed change from the typical Christian priest/minister figure that tends to dominate the religious side of opera. He also doesn’t come off as much of a meddler as there seems to be something going on between Fritz and Suzel from the start even if it takes them both a while to realize it themselves. The rest is a mix of music that is fine to music that is very good. For what it is L’amico Fritz is a most enjoyable opera. It is easy to spot the recitatives in the work, however, so for an opera from this late (1891) it is not difficult to detect the numbers and there are obvious moments when the music naturally ends and so does the action. The first act prelude does sound rather unsophisticated, even crude, and this harms the very beginning of the opera but things pick up quickly and from that point on never let you down. Although not a great and grand opera (in fact it is rarely performed outside of Italy where it does in fact maintain itself within the national rep and internationally it is Mascagni’s second most popular opera), it is a very comforting and welcoming one. It just scrapes an A-.

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