I wonder if “vault opera” is a term, because Baltimore Concert Opera moved away from the standard opera repertoire to pull one out of the history vault for performance as their second offering of the current season. Personally, I love it when they do this. It is so refreshing to get to experience an opera for the first time, even if it is not a new opera. About a two dozen opera standards get performed almost continuously around the world, but there are thousands of operas that have been written and performed, many quite good, that rarely if ever reach the stage. Suppose we only got to see remakes of the same twenty-five movies over and over again. L’amico Fritz (1891) by composer Pietro Mascagni and librettist Nicola Diaspuro (based on the 1864 book “L’ami Fritz” by Émile Erckmann and Pierre-Alexandre Chatrian) was Mascagni’s second opera, and while it enjoyed a measure of success in its day, it has been little performed in the years since.
Concert opera companies have an advantage when it comes to vault operas because they don’t have to endure the expense of mounting a fully-staged opera and then risking weak box office sales for a lesser-known work. They also can resurrect works like L’amico Fritz, where the music is good but is wed to a weak or problematic libretto. Presenting lesser-known works with something to offer is part of BCO’s mission and performs a valuable service to its opera fans. Regarding L’Amico Fritz, the great Giuseppe Verdi is reported to have called it the worst libretto he had ever seen; kinda harsh, but that’s the rap on L’amico Fritz. It’s not that the story for L’amico Fritz is bad. In fact, it is an amusing, light-hearted love story. As a movie in the 1950s with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly playing the leads and directed by Billy Wilder, it would probably have been very successful film, but it doesn’t meet the needs of grand opera. Probably one critic nailed it when he said that Mascagni, though responsive to the audiences of his era, “too readily mistook emotion for deep feeling”. Maybe there is a lesson there; in regard to the question of which is more important in opera, the music or the words, the answer is both.
Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945) lived, shall we say, an interesting life; he was reportedly both egotistical and an opportunist and who eventually overplayed his hand. He was what we call today a one-hit wonder. L’amico Fritz was his second opera. His first was Cavalleria Rusticana, an opera that became an instant smash hit. It was soon being played in opera houses around the world and even today, it is one of the repertoire’s most popular. It is also one of the operas of that period that ushered in the Italian verismo style of opera, focusing on the hardships and heartaches of everyday people. Though L’amico Fritz was successful, it was not the great follow on opera that people expected. One could say that Mascagni shot himself in the foot. He deliberately picked a light story to focus attention on his music because he was peeved at criticism that Rusticana’s popularity was propelled by the libretto. He also abandoned the verismo style for this opera, moving the music back to a more bel canto style. This inability to match his early success plagued him his entire life, though he could always say that he had produced a great one. A few other anecdotes about his interesting life: Cavalleria Rusticana won an opera competition that launched his composing career when his wife submitted that score instead of a lesser one he intended to submit; early in his development he attended the Milan Conservatory but was kicked out without graduating for not doing his work; later in his career, he managed to succeed the legendary Toscanini as director of music at La Scala; finally his support of Mussolini and fascism caused him to fall out of favor, and he died penniless in a small hotel in Rome. There must have been a movie about this guy; anybody know of one?
The plot of L’amico Fritz revolves around a wealthy landowner in Italy named Fritz. He is being lobbied by his friend Rabbi David to provide a dowry for a young couple in the village who are to be wed. Fritz can’t understand why anyone would choose to be married, but David tells Fritz that he will be wed one day, and Fritz wagers a parcel of land that he won’t. Then, in walks Suzel, the attractive young daughter of a local farmer. They are smitten with each other, but Fritz is not yet willing to accept or reveal his true feelings. Finally, the threat of her father pushing her to marry someone else causes them to express their love for each other and plan to marry. David wins the bet and gives the land to Suzel as a wedding gift. Presumably, they all live happily ever after. Mascagni probably should have revisited them a few years into their marriage; there might have been a verismo opportunity. Oh wait, that was what Cavalleria Rusticana was about; looks like he also made the mistake of getting the cart before the horse.
All that said though, it was a treat to hear the music from this opera for the first time, and it became clear why BCO chose it. Even beyond its famous ‘Cherry Duet”, it displays many pleasing melodies and several beautiful arias. We were also treated to two excellent violin solos by Sarah Hedlund, concertmaster for the Occasional Symphony in Baltimore. Kudos to Conductor Giovanni Reggioli for helping to bring this opera forward. Best all, as usual for BCO performances, was the opportunity to hear an excellent cast of singers, and to get to experience them in the warm and cozy confines of the Engineers Club Ballroom! Tenor William Davenport who played Fritz was a standout. I thought his voice and singing were simply beautiful and very natural. If I closed my eyes listening to him, I could easily imagine I was in an opera house in Italy. It took me awhile to start enjoying soprano Victoria Cannizzo as Suzel. Initially, I thought her voice was rather dramatic and powerful to portray Suzel, but I was won over and found delight with her arias in Acts II and III. Baritone Eric McKeever stood out portraying David as did mezzo-soprano Kate Jackman portraying Fritz’s gypsy friend Beppe. Kylena Parks as a servant was featured only briefly, but made an impression; let’s hope BCO brings her back. Tenor Wesley Morgan and bass Cody Muller served admirably as Fritz’s friends. I also enjoyed the chorus; kudos to Chorus Master James Harp.
Now we get to the verismo part of this blog report, what I didn’t care for. I have mixed feelings about only having piano accompaniment for this opera (I understand the BCO focus is the singing and this has not been an issue for me in other BCO productions). Since hearing this performance, I have listened to a recording of L’amico Fritz with Gavazzeni conducting and Pavarotti and Freni as Fritz and Suzel – well worth a listen, available for streaming on Amazon Music and Apple Music. Mascagni’s music is beautiful and relies heavily on violins played softly to express the emotion. I’m not sure how well this translates to simple piano accompaniment. Part of my difficulty is that pianist Justina Lee, I thought, played with a heavy hand, as though she were trying to make up for the lack of an orchestra. Many of the arias are quite tender and needed more finesse and delicacy in the playing, at least according to my ears. I would have enjoyed it more with a gentler approach. By the way, Mascagani made a recording of L’amico Fritz with the RAI National Symphony and Chorus conducted by himself in 1942; I haven’t found a source for that one just yet.
For me, L’amico Fritz offered many treats, though I didn’t enjoy all aspects. However, the BCO experience is always worth it overall. Getting to hear professional opera singers singing up close and personal in such pleasant surroundings is not to be passed up. Neither is getting to hear excellent music you are not likely to hear anywhere else. If you get a chance, give L’amico Fritz a chance; you will be rewarded.
The Fan Experience: The Garrett-Jacobs Mansion which houses the Engineers Club, BCO’s venue, is worth a visit by itself. Dinner in the club can be arranged in advance. Paid parking is available and valet parking is usually available on Sunday performances. So far, I have always been able to find free street parking; you just have to be careful to read the street signs and warnings. Next up for BCO is a Thirsty Thursday offering “Velvety Voices and Cozy Cocktails” on January 31. They begin again with a complete opera on March 1 and 3 with Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. These events are always fun and quite a bargain for a date night outing.