For the initiated “L’Amico Fritz” is far more than a somewhat obscure successor to the one-hit wonder of “Cavalleria Rusticana” which, in 1890, had famously crowned Mascagni before he was King (to paraphrase his own words).
It rather stands as a vividly orchestrated bucolic clad in the musical jargon of the giovane scuola with its chromatic shifts and tonal ambiguity so progressive as to elicit the skepticism of Verdi himself
Unfortunately, the critical fortunes of “L’Amico Fritz” have been less than enthusing and only a handful of recordings are commercially available, including the wonderful EMI set with Freni and Pavarotti from 1968. Dynamic’s new release therefore comes as a most welcome contribution to the re-establishment of Pietro Mascagni at the forefront of turn-of-the-century Italian opera.
An American Scenery
Dynamic’s “L’Amico Fritz” was recorded from its 2022 run at the Maggio Musicale in Florence. Produced by Rosetta Cucchi, it boasts the colorful and vibrant decorations of a Woody Allen movie. They translate the libretto’s action from an Alsatian village to a bar in New York City and, in the second act, a generously sized winery with an Andrew Wyeth-style landscape as backdrop.
Certainly, the cinematographic allure serves the naivety of the plot and, most of all, its comedic elements, such as the rabbi David’s entrance on a fully packed golf cart. On the other hand, the bar set feels like a slimmed down version of the Café Momus or Bullier’s from Puccini’s “La Rondine” and a real reason for relocating the story from Alsace to the United States is strangely missing. If anything, it dilutes the fascination for the German Romantic which is so constitutive to the works of the giovane scuola (notably Catalani’s “La Wally”).
Within this context, I also object to the decision of adapting the libretto to the stage director’s needs, as when Suzel becomes “la più vaga sposina di tutta l’America.”
Departing from the lirico
Musically, “L’Amico Fritz” is carried by the vocal charisma of Charles Castronovo and Salome Jicia in the main roles.
Theirs is a slightly atypical take on the landowner Fritz and his beloved Suzel, as they deviate from the lyricism of earlier recordings, for instance a 1942 radio broadcast with Ferruccio Tagliavini and the marvelous Pia Tassinari (conducted by Mascagni himself) or, in more recent memory, a live performance from the Deutsche Oper in Berlin.
In short, Castronovo infuses his character with the dark-hued timbre of a tenor veering towards the dramatic – he is fiery, irate, and tortured at will (“Ed anche Beppe amò”) while keeping his ability, in the arias, to perform beautiful sfumature tied into the legato line.
Similarly, Salome Jicia’s voice is not anchored in the lirico tradition. Instead, its dramatic inflexions have the bite and incisiveness of Mascagni’s later verismo heroines, making Jicia’s an unusually complex portrayal – and this in spite of her somewhat one-dimensional acting on stage.
The duets are exquisitely sung with the notational detail minutely rendered for a live performance. Take, for example, the final bars of the “Cherry Duet” in which Castronovo’s decrescendo on “il dolce aprile” fuses with the sustained warm tone of his Suzel.
An all-star cast
The Lucchese Massimo Cavalletti lends his hefty baritone to the matchmaking rabbi David. He is imposing both physically and vocally, as when he assumes a paternal stance in the Biblical narrative of the second act (“tu mi sembravi Rebecca; e mi credetti Eleazaro”). His sermon of “Per voi, ghiottoni inutili” also strikes the right balance between his indignation at Fritz’ leisurely life and feelings of tender benevolence.
A special accolade goes to Teresa Iervolino’s witty and altogether delightful characterization of Beppe, a late trouser role with considerable demands on a technical as well as comedic level. Iervolina masters them effortlessly and displays her mezzo’s honeyed qualities at length.
The Maggio Musicale’s orchestral forces are conducted by Riccardo Frizza. I will say that, for my taste, his pacing is too uniform or the orchestral sound too dense to reflect the rhythmic as well as chromatic nuances of the score.
For a true measure of Mascagni’s musical innovations, I will therefore return to Gavazzeni’s 1968 masterclass on EMI while cherishing Dynamic’s new “L’Amico Fritz” as a modern though slightly displaced version with loads of vocal feats and charisma. It is a release that I will fully commend.
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