Teatro Grattacielo 2021-22 Review: ‘L’Amico Fritz’
Alexandra Razskazoff Shines in Otherwise Disappointing Presentation of Rare Verismo WorkBy Chris Ruel
On November 14, 2021, New York’s Teatro Grattacielo presented a semi-staged production of Pietro Mascagni’s “L’Amico Fritz.” Unlike his hit, “Cavalleria rusticana,” Mascagni’s second opera orbits the far reaches of the standard repertoire.
I give the company credit for reviving the somewhat charming opera, but there were misfires in the musical execution and elsewhere that marred the production, leaving me with the impression that the show wasn’t quite ready to open.
Today’s audiences have encountered the story re-spun in television and film treatments; a guy bets his confirmed bachelor friend he can find the perfect romantic match and surprise – the bachelor falls in love and marries.
Though billed as a lyric comedy, hilarity doesn’t ensue after they make the bet. Rather, there’s anger and not a few tears, but no one dies, which, given the period’s penchant for tragedy, lends it a loose sense of lightheartedness.
Act one begins with the titular character, the well-to-do landowner, Fritz Kobus lunching with his friend, David, a rabbi. David is the local matchmaker, forever cajoling Fritz to agree to pay the dowry of young couples. After some back-and-forth, Fritz agrees to pay for the rabbi’s latest match.
His amici, Federico and Hanzeò, soon joined Fritz, and we learn it’s Fritz’s birthday. Suzel, the daughter of one of Fritz’s tenants, arrives with a bouquet as a gift. Another of Fritz’s friends arrives when the four hear the passionate sounds of the gypsy Beppe playing his violin. The music entrances all, particularly Suzel, who becomes enraptured by the free sensuality of the music, something that doesn’t go unnoticed by Fritz. David tells Fritz that Suzel would make a good wife, and he intends to find her a match. Fritz isn’t keen on Suzel marrying anyone because she’s rather young, but there’s no stopping David from his hobby. Fritz, fed up with David’s matchmaking side gig, reaffirms his commitment to bachelorhood, and bets one of his vineyards to prove he will never fall prey to marriage.
Act two is a pastoral, with Suzel heading out to the orchard to gather cherries. Fritz joins her and mentions she might soon become a bride. Suzel, embarrassed, leaves Fritz behind, upsetting him. David (and his other buddies), join Fritz in the orchard. David once more broaches the subject of marrying Suzel off and believes he has the perfect guy. But, having fallen in love with the young woman, Fritz is further angered by David’s words. So, he stomps off in a huff. Suzel returns and finds David in the orchard where the two recount the Biblical story of Rebecca and Eliezer (Genesis Chapter 24), in which Eliezer finds Issac a wife. This upsets Suzel because she has fallen for Fritz and doesn’t want to be matched with anyone but him.
The concluding act opens with a depressed Fritz milling about his dining room. Beppe arrives, attempting to lift Fritz’s spirits with a song, but it has the opposite effect and he sends the gypsy away. Enter David, whose news kicks the bachelor while down: Suzel is engaged to be married and her father will come soon to ask for Fritz’s blessing. Fritz freaks and angrily refuses to allow the marriage and leaves. Suzel now joins David, reiterating that she cannot bear the thought of marrying someone she doesn’t love, but the rabbi assures her everything will work out fine. Fritz returns to the dining room, where he and Suzel express their love for each other and their desire to marry. The nuptials occur on the spot, and David wins the vineyard. But in a magnanimous move, David gifts the vineyard to Suzel as a wedding present.
Sworn bachelor one day, married man the next.
Verdi Was No Friend of “Fritz”
The libretto by P. Saudon (Nicola Daspuro) is based on the French novel “L’ami Fritz” by Émile Erckmann and Pierre-Alexandre Chatrian struck one of Mascagni’s contemporaries as ridiculous.
The great maestro, Verdi, didn’t pull his punches after reading a copy of “Fritz” sent to him by his publisher, Casa Ricordi.
“Thank you for the score of Fritz you sent me. I have in my life read very, very many bad libretti, but never have I read such a half-witted libretto as this.”
Mascagni was experimenting with buffa and seria ingredients, and in the end, the text was neither. Not every experiment is successful. It’s all just repetitive and bland, and there’s not much on the line for any of the characters. Fritz is a wealthy landowner who routinely pays doweries for his tenants. He places a vineyard on the line when betting against David, but it’s implied he has others. A protagonist who has little to lose, and encounters only minor struggles to get their goal, is uninteresting and makes for a humdrum story.
What “Fritz” has going for it is in the score. The melodies aren’t drab. They’re evocative and exotic. The extended violin solo signaling Beppe’s arrival is smoky and sensual. The oboe solo in scene one, Act two, sets the pastoral stage wonderfully. The big payoffs happen in the orchestra, and though none of it’s nearly as lush or masterful as Puccini, there’s much to admire.
There are well-crafted, mostly upbeat passages throughout; the Beppe’s gypsy motif is a highlight, along with the aforementioned duet, and the pleasing Intermezzo. The “Cherry Duet,” is a gorgeous highlight among generally uninspiring vocal lines.
The Very Good
Soprano Alexandra Razskazoff got my attention and held it. Her voice demanded it. When it came time to cut, the spinto sliced through the tutti finale with a diamond blade of sound.
Her portrayal of Suzel was pure and warm, performing the “Cherry Duet” with an endearing innocence. I wanted the young maiden of the story to find love and happiness. I cared, and that was not the case with every character.
Tenor John Bellemer, in the title role, sang admirably, but the projection wasn’t always there during ensemble numbers. He was very sweet and well-paired with Razskazoff during the “Cherry Duet,” and his fits with David showed fire in voice and acting. He was versatile, but I wasn’t invested in Fritz’s plight—not that he has much of one. He swore himself to bachelorhood and suddenly falls in love. Yes, he’ll lose one of his vineyards, but there’s little else at stake. That’s where I wanted to see a more developed Fritz. Lemonade needed to be made from the lemon that is P. Saudon’s libretto.
Baritone Marcus Deloach, as David, was entertaining. He has a pleasing, rich voice, and his portrayal of the matchmaking rabbi kept my interest, though as a character he’s unnecessary in bringing about the romance between Fritz and Suzel, the two were already falling in love during Act one. Deloach kept me engaged with the sense of mischief he brought to the role.
Beppe. I wish “L’Amico Fritz” had more Beppe. Mascagni gave some of the most interesting music to the fun and amusingly melodramatic gypsy who mezzo-soprano Mariya Kaganskaya brought to life.
The semi-staged performance included projections of different sorts. There were falling cherry blossoms and whimsical, bouncing cherries accompanied by images of Suzel and Fritz floating through the air, hand-in-hand. I mostly found these distracting. The more puzzling projections played during the Preludietto and Intermezzo were collages for which I couldn’t discern meaning. To my eye and mind, they were too abstract for the subject. There was also a poorly executed real-time projection of the soloists interspersed throughout the show as the camera operator struggled to track the vocalists and constantly needed to recenter the frame.
I understand what directors Malena Dayen and Stefanos Koroneos were attempting, but it felt disjointed and, apart from the cherry-related projections, didn’t, on the surface, relate to the story.
It’s unfortunate to say this, but the Queens Symphony Orchestra under the baton of James Bagwell struggled from the get-go. The pacing was erratic, as were the dynamics. The beauty I spoke of in Mascagni’s music was terribly marred. The ensemble lacked cohesion and precision. Sections were out of tune. High notes from strings and winds (particularly right at the beginning of the work) could feel screechy instead of blending in with the rest of the ensemble. Either the band needed a few more intense practices or the instrumentalists were over their heads. I doubt it was the latter.
Either way, the buck stops with the person on the podium.
There was an egregious miscommunication that occurred as Razskazoff began her line “Riso o pianto,
tutto è palpito d’amore!” directly following the first portion of the “Cherry Duet.” The orchestra got lost, but the soprano pushed through as best she could to stay in sync with the musicians. There was also noticeable miscues during her third Act aria that could have derailed her, but Razskazoff managed confidently without missing a beat.
I came into the theater excited to hear Mascagni’s melodies and left very disappointed and feeling for the vocalists, who were far better prepared but consistently overpowered by the orchestra.
Works that sit on the fringes of the repertoire need to be revived convincingly and as flawlessly as possible, because, if done poorly, it reinforces the idea that the opera should remain in the pasture to which it has been relegated.
As an opera, “Fritz” may never set the world afire, but that doesn’t mean it should go down in flames. Thanks to some poor musical direction, it nearly did.