Wednesday, July 29, 2009

L'Amico Fritz

The San Francisco Opera's summer training program for young professionals is performing two operas this summer at Fort Mason's Cowell Theatre, directly across from the bandshell made of recycled materials. The above sculpture was originally in the Golden Gate Park panhandle, disappeared, and now has reappeared magically in a Fort Mason parking lot.

The first opera played last weekend, and it was a rarity, "L'Amico Fritz," Pietro Mascagni's 1891 follow-up to his sensationally successful debut opera, "Cavalleria Rusticana." Just about everybody who was anybody who cares about opera in San Francisco was there, and they also wrote about it on the internet. Cedric thought it was like a box of chocolates, it made Mark long for a War Memorial season of verismo, Charlise was amused but had problems with the orchestra, Janos found himself relieved that "slumming in the ludicrously sentimental music was a happy occasion.", Georgia thought it was an unimitigated treat, Joshua thought it a superb production but wasn't sure if the characters were Jewish, and last but not least Patrick found it charming and very peculiar.

My reaction was a mixture of surprised delight at the extraordinary beauty of the score which I had never heard before, and flabbergasted amusement at the weird libretto which seemed to have no real dramatic conflicts except for a rabbi running through every scene telling everyone they need to stop being selfish people and get married and have babies.

Part of why the evening was so affecting were the performances by the Merola summer training singers. They threw themselves into their roles and the sincerity worked sympathetically with the young, romantic subject. Nathaniel Peake in the title role has a beautiful tenor that's extremely sweet and velvety. Even though his character didn't make a whole lot of sense, when he sang you could tell this person had a lot of soul.

My caveat was with the direction by Nic Muni. The simple unit set, split into one half raked stage with dining room table for upscale inside and flat stage for rustic outside, was perfectly serviceable. Unfortunately, the director broke the third wall repeatedly so you never knew when somebody was supposed to be inside or outside or where the hell they were supposed to be. During the "Cherry Duet" in Act 2, when the two romantic leads finally look at each other like ripe fruit for the first time, the director has Fritz on his Barcalounger inside and Suzel miming fruit picking outside. What's she doing, throwing the cherries at him through a window while they're singing the duet?

Allan Mallach wrote the only English language biography of Mascagni in 2002 for Northwestern University Press, and it turns out the composer is a fascinating character who was a major cultural figure in Italy until his death in 1945. He also wrote another 15 operas, some of which according to Mallach are overlooked musical masterpieces, especially "Guglielmo Ratcliff" and "Iris."

"L'Amico Fritz" started out as an 1864 French novel called "L'Ami Fritz" written by Émile Erckmann (1822-1899) and Alexandre Chatrian (1826-1890), which was "a series of genre scenes depicting Bavarian country life and Jewish customs." When the authors turned it into a play in 1876, they reset the story in Alsace, which had been occupied for the last six years by the Germans. "The genre scenes are gone, and Rabbi David has become a spokesman for their new patriotic themes. The pursuit of love and marriage is a duty to the nation, and Fritz's aimless life of good fellowship is treated as a dereliction of his patriotic obligations. As the happy couple embrace at the end, Rabbi David turns to Fritz's bachelor friends, reminding them that the first duty of all Frenchmen is to produce more men to rebuild the homeland." Ah, now it's starting to make some sense.

Mallach continues: "In the libretto the patriotic theme, which would have fallen with indifference on Italian ears of the 1890s, was removed by the librettists, whose Rabbi David asserts that marriage and procreation are a moral, rather than a political, duty...Joseph the gypsy, an insignificant figure in the play, has been renamed Beppe. He has two arias, neither drawn from the play, and both all but redundant in the opera." Maya Lahyani from Israel sang the part of the only goyim in the opera, and she was quite splendid in the absurd role of "the worthless gypsy."


jolene said...

"telling everyone they need to stop being selfish people and get married and have babies."

Ah, good words to live by.

Ced said...

Great job digging the patriotic stuff from the bio. And I totally agree with you on the stage direction. The Beppe violin intermede played on the gramophone has to be the dullest scene ever.

Civic Center said...

Dear Ced: Thanks.

Dear Jolene: I do hope you're kidding about "good words to live by," my beautiful neuroscientist.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I'm sorry I missed this, but I was in Santa Fe for "The Letter."

"Iris" has been recorded a few times and has wonderful music. The one I'm seriously curious about is "Isabeau," which hasn't been performed in the US in decades, if ever, and when it was current in Italy was done by the likes of Raisa and Turner, the big-gun girls. There's one bootleg around, which I've never heard.

jolene said...

Dear Mike, yes, I am definitely kidding. :) I was amused by that sentence. The performance sounds like it was lovely.

Joseph P. said...

L'Amico Fritz is something of a problem piece. Mascagni wrote it in 1891 in an attempt to avoid being stereotyped as a violent realist after the success of Cavalleria Rusticana the previous year.

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