Holland Park Opera makes a good job of rather poor Mascagni

Mascagni, L’amico Fritz: Soloists, Chorus of Opera Holland Park, City of London Sinfonia, Stuart Stratford (conductor), 10.6.2011 (GDn)

Fritz Eric Margiore
Suzel Anna Leese
David David Stephenson
Beppe Patricia Orr
Caterina Susan Young
Hanezo Simon Wilding
Frederico Robert Burt

Conductor Stuart Stratford
Director Annilese Miskimmon
Designer Nicky Shaw
Lighting Designer Mark Jonathan

Production picture courtesy of Opera Holland Park

Holland Park’s second new production of the season looks to be another success for them. L’amico Fritz, while it is obscure, is a classic verismo confection, just the sort of thing that this company does well. And the production excels in many ways: musically it is energetic and precise, the staging is inventive, and everything fits well into the summer festival ambiance – especially that famous Cherry Duet in the second act that seems perfectly timed for the first weeks of June.

But first a word about the opera itself: the libretto is dreadful. Really, really dreadful. It was Mascagni’s first opera after Cavalleria rusticana, and apparently he was annoyed that the success of the earlier work had been attributed to its libretto. So, second time round, he wanted a libretto that would not overshadow his score. There is little chance of that happening with this feeble effort. The plot, if you can call it that, is that Fritz, a wealthy bachelor, has vowed never to marry and enters into a bet with a friendly Rabbi to this effect. But then he meets the girl of his dreams, Suzel, and so does marry after all. That’s it, there’s no back story, no character development, nothing.

The music is better, but not good enough to save the work from its libretto. Mascagni pulls out all the stops in terms of expressive and romantic music. As Robert Thicknesse notes in his programme essay, the composer knows how to keep the music modulating at just the right rate to maintain the interest. I would add that he knows what he is doing with the orchestration as well. He knows when he is going overboard, especially with the brass, but does it anyway when an act finale needs it. Some of the Mickey Mouse effects can get annoying: somebody drinks and we get an ascending staccato chromatic scale;  somebody mentions a storm and we get legato chromatic scales, that sort of thing. But on the whole the music is competently written, and the composer really knows how to get the best from his singers.

Director Annilese Miskimmon and designer Nicky Shaw sensibly treat this paper-thin scenario as a tabula rasa to do with as they like. What they come up with is a 1950s business environment, with Fritz as a property tycoon and the outer acts taking place in his state-of-the-art offices. We are in Mad Men territory here, with many of the characters smoking continuously and a vague threat of violence hanging over some of the scenes: at one point in Act II it even turns out the rabbi is handy.

The whole premise works well enough. There is no tension between the libretto and the updated setting because the libretto is not up to the fight. The sets are elegant and find inventive things to do with the huge expanse of space on the Holland Park stage. The scene change at the start of Act II is impressive. Without giving too much away, they basically construct a house on the stage as we wait. (No music from Mascagni here, that’s a mark against the score.)

The cast are all on the young side, but the standard was impressively high. Eric Margiore has a characterful voice that keeps his portrayal of the title character interesting throughout. He can also really act, which is especially impressive given how little dramatic material he is provided by the libretto. His crucial weakness is a lack of power in the loudest sections. He is required to crank up the volume for the finales to both the second and the third acts, but in both cases he disappears beneath the orchestra at the crucial moment.

If Anna Leese has a weakness, it is her acting, although again, the two dimensional role she is given can’t be much help. But she more than makes up for this with her singing, which is very impressive indeed. To look at her, I’d guess she is in her mid-20s, yet her voice has an astonishing maturity. She brings a range of colours to the role, she has power when needed, and she can do that heavy but controlled vibrato that these verismo parts require. She has been all over the publicity for this production, and listening to her it is easy to understand why the company is so proud of her. Just one reservation about her singing, she too struggles with those finales at the ends of the acts, and has a tendency to go very sharp when pressed into loud, high phrase endings.

David Stephenson puts in a characterful performance as the rabbi. His baritone voice is a little on the light side, but there is a valuable intimacy about his sound. Again, the libretto gives the singer very little to go on in terms of fleshing out the character, but Stephenson’s voice makes up for the lack. He might be better suited to the recital hall though, and I’d love to hear him sing some Schubert.

The singers in the supporting roles all do their jobs very well, and I’ve no real qualms about any of them. I had heard before the performance that Patricia Orr, in the trouser role of Beppe, was suffering from a sore throat, but she sounded fine to me. Perhaps when in better health she can add a little more projection, but it’s not really necessary.

A great performance from the orchestra, better I thought than they played for Don Pasquale on Tuesday. There were no significant problems with balance, ensemble or tuning. A special mention should definitely go to conductor Stuart Stratford. One advantage of the pit at Holland Park is that everybody in the audience can see the conductor work, and boy does this conductor work! He knows exactly what the orchestra and singers are doing at any given time, and makes sure they put everything into it. Holland Park is clearly a house, or rather a tent, that takes the innovation and professionalism of its staging seriously. But whatever you do with L’amico Fritz, the scenario and dramaturgy are always going to be fatally flawed. Just as well, then that they take the musical side of things just as seriously, and kudos to all the musicians, and especially to Stuart Stratford, for making this production a spectacular musical success.

Gavin Dixon