Mascagni: L’amico Fritz

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WORKS: L’amico Fritz
PERFORMER: Roberto Alagna, Angela Gheorghiu, Laura Polverelli, George Petean, Yosep Kang, Hyung-Wook Lee, Andión Fernández; German Opera; Berlin Chorus & Orchestra/Alberto Veronesi

Having won an overnight success with Cavalleria rusticana, the opera that launched the verismo movement in 1890, Mascagni wanted his next stage work to be quite different. And L’amico Fritz (1891) certainly is. Instead of the jealous passions of his violent Sicilian peasants, he turned to a tale set in the Jewish community of mid-19th-century Alsace, where the mature bachelor Fritz is effectively wooed and won by young farmer’s daughter Suzel, aided by Fritz’s closest friend, the local Rabbi. In this smaller, regularly idyllic musical and dramatic canvas, love is a blessing, not a curse.
Musically, the treatment is quite different, too, with subtler colours in Mascagni’s deft orchestration, and novelties of harmony and rhythm that would have been out of place in Cavalleria. Fritz has never won the overwhelming popularity of its predecessor, but its regularly enchanting score deserves its place in the repertoire.
The first scene of Act II, including the famous Cherry Duet, is one of the highpoints of Italian opera of its period. The entire score comes over persuasively here, with conductor Alberto Veronesi revealing the music’s graceful lyricism with a keen sense of forward movement in this live account recorded in concert at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, in 2008. Robert Alagna moves between the understated and the ardent in his sympathetic portrayal of Fritz, with Angela Gheorghiu finding a credible way into Suzel’s shyness. In the supporting roles of the Rabbi and the gypsy boy Beppe, George Petean and Laura Polverelli are both excellent. 
There’s one major competitor, in the shape of a 1968 recording, on EMI, in which the 33-year-old Luciano Pavarotti and his fellow citizen and contemporary from Modena, soprano Mirella Freni, are conducted by a wise old hand of Italian opera in the shape of Gianandrea Gavazzeni.
But this new account can hold its head up even in that august company. Gheorghiu counters Freni’s fresh-faced approach with her own richer palette of vocal colours and a there’s a warmth and vulnerability to Alagna’s Fritz that suggests a more mature personality than Pavarotti’s almost boyish ingenuousness, wonderfully voiced as it is.
Anyone already possessing the EMI version can rest happy with that, but on this new set Mascagni’s innocuous sounding score comes over as not merely charming but profound. Veronesi’s way with the piece has a naturalness that nevertheless seeks out its distinctive character – a passage such as the rhapsodic offstage violin that introduces Beppe can sound merely picturesque, but registers here as spell-binding.
Mascagni’s career and later reputation, ironically, never fully recovered from his initial, unprecedented success with Cavalleria, which provided Italian opera not just with an instant classic but a re-launch. But as this recording amply demonstrates, our expectations of his talent are more limited than his actual artistry, and he was no one-trick pony. George Hall