Mascagni – L’amico Fritz
Fritz Kobus – Charles Castronovo
Suzel – Salome Jicia
Beppe, lo zingaro – Teresa Iervolino
Davide il rabbino – Massimo Cavalletti
Federico – Dave Monaco
Hanezò – Francesco Samuele Venuti
Caterina – Caterina Meldolesi
Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino / Riccardo Frizza.
Stage director – Rosetta Cucchi.
Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Teatro del Maggio, Florence, Italy. Sunday, March 6th, 2022.
This afternoon’s performance of Mascagni’s 1891 opera, L’amico Fritz, at the Maggio Musicale was the opportunity to see a rarity. This is a work that most certainly deserves to be heard more often. With a running time of around 100 minutes, the score contains some glorious uplifting melodies, with in particular some impassioned duets for the central duo of Fritz and Suzel. Set in Alsace, it recounts the story of Fritz, the village benefactor, who bets with his Rabbi, David, that he will never fall in love and if he does, the Rabbi will get his vineyard. Of course, that’s the cue for the comely Suzel to show up and Fritz promptly indeed falls in love with her. Combined with a lively gypsy character, Beppe, who comes along and sings some swaggering music, the presence of Fritz’s two friends, Hanezò and Federico, and some big soaring melodies both for the principals and in the orchestra, the piece is a work that is very much worth discovering.
Today’s staging was confided to Rosetta Cucchi. She moves the action from Alsace to the 1980s in the United States, in a cityscape that resembles New York City. Indeed, she makes a few small alterations to the libretto to update the location – Suzel becomes the most attractive girl in America, rather than in Alsace, for instance. Acts 1 and 3 take place in Fritz’s bar, while Act 2 takes place at his vineyard, complete with sprawling vistas of rolling countryside through the window, where the Rabbi and company show up on a golf cart. Cucchi gives the narrative room to work its magic easily, founded on genuine and unmistakable chemistry between the principals, and with a cast who look like they’re having the time of their lives. Indeed, I was fortunate to be sitting towards the front of the auditorium and seeing the vividness of the acting on stage, I felt genuinely pulled into the action, almost forgetting that I was in a theatre, rather than watching a genuinely real scene unfolding before me. There was genuine tenderness between Salome Jicia’s Suzel and Charles Castronovo’s Fritz, the regret and frustration that Fritz clearly felt at the thought of having potentially lost Suzel was utterly palpable, and Castronovo compellingly brought to life Fritz’s realization of having feelings he’d never experienced before. At the end of the evening, the entire ensemble reflected on the wonder of falling in love. Perhaps, it would have been nice had Cucchi challenged the work’s heteronormativity and made Hanezò and Federico into a couple, rather than having them seemingly pair off with a pair of anonymous female extras. That said, Cucchi gives us a wonderfully uplifting show.
Jicia sang Suzel with delightfully generous vocalism. Her soprano is somewhat chalky in tone, not the most refulgent natural instrument, but she uses it with such fine musicality and attention to the text. She understands this music instinctively and allows the voice to open up with substantial freedom on high, yet never with a hint of strain or a sense of a voice going beyond its natural limits. Jicia brought out both the anticipation of burgeoning love and the joyfulness of dreams coming true, through her exceptionally detailed acting and by bringing the expression of her physicality in music through the text. A notable performance.
As Fritz, Castronovo gave us a singing lesson today. The way that he had integrated the role into the voice, was testament to the sheer hours of study and practice that have gone into the profound understanding he has of his instrument. In his Act 2 duet with Suzel, he pulled back on the tone magically, giving us a perfectly supported diminuendo on high. Similarly, the warm masculine tone was present throughout, with an impeccably smooth legato, and the voice ringing out on high with ease. Castronovo also found genuine insight in the text, using it as the starting point to colour the lines and bring his character to life.
In the role of the Rabbi, David, Massimo Cavalletti was a deliciously extrovert stage presence. He sang the role in a firm, beefy baritone of a good size and resonance. He had also clearly integrated the role into his technique and mastered his resources well, even if the very top of the voice loses some amplitude. Teresa Iervolino swaggered terrifically as Beppe and sang the role in her velvety mezzo. She sang her music confidently, again even if the very top of the voice also sounds slightly less integrated to the middle. The remaining roles had clearly been cast from strength with Dave Monaco and Francesco Samuele Venuti singing and acting with textual clarity and vocal charm in the roles of Federico and Hanezò.
Riccardo Frizza led a Maggio orchestra on superlative form. This really is a superb band. His reading was lovingly phrased, particularly in an Act 3 prelude that was full of searching longing – and which inspired an instant and generous ovation from the audience. His tempi were sensible, giving the principals room to soar, yet never to the expense of maintaining a consistent thread of forward momentum. The Maggio strings gave us a deep pile carpet of string sound, and tuning throughout was impeccable. The chorus, prepared by Lorenzo Fratini, sang from off stage with wonderful blend and added an appropriately warm halo to the sound.
This was an utterly uplifting show – perfect indeed for a Sunday afternoon. We were given musical and dramatic performances at the highest level, with immensely satisfying singing. It was conducted with an acute awareness of style and superbly played by the house orchestra. Cucchi’s staging allows the work to work its magic, taking us on a journey and giving us the opportunity to relive the magic of falling in love. It was received with a justifiably generous ovation by the Maggio public.