For those fond of lesser known operas by Puccini’s contemporaries – the erroneously dubbed “veristi” – reliable catering can always be found at Opera Holland Park, for whom the music of Leoncavallo, Montemezzi et al has long been one of their most appealing characteristics. The last opera in their 2021 season is not a rarity for them: this is the third time that OHP has presented Masgacni’s charming romantic comedy, L’amico Fritz.

Katie Bird (Suzel)
© Ali Wright

Mascagni, like most of those who composed under Puccini’s shadow, is often deemed to be a “one hit wonder” for his Cavalleria rusticana which took Europe by storm in 1890. Concerned that the compelling libretto had obscured his music, Mascagni resolved to compose an opera with a rather weaker libretto that would be sustained by the sheer force and genius of his music. From one extreme to the other perhaps. No less than Verdi, that great man of the theatre, excoriated the quality of Fritz’s libretto. Such criticism seems unfair; it’s undoubtedly weak compared to the mainstays of the opera house, but there’s a warmth and whimsy to it that is matched in a beautiful, in places very delicate, score. For contemporary times, it’s also a deeply hopeful piece. The amiable Fritz is a committed bachelor who on his birthday nonetheless willingly chips in to the cost of a young couple’s marriage at the request of his dear friend, the Rabbi David. Suzel, the young daughter of one of Fritz’s tenants, rolls up with a bunch of flowers. Fritz later meets her picking cherries and they start to fall in love. He is horrified to hear from matchmaker David that a husband has been found and when the engagement is announced, Fritz is racked with misery. Naturally Suzel and Fritz confess their love and it’s all happily ever after from there on. Pastoral scenes, a bachelor finding love, cross-class romance, inter-faith harmony and even healthy eating – it’s all delightfully utopian.

Matteo Lippi (Fritz) and Paul Carey Jones (David)
© Ali Wright

Director Julia Burbach doesn’t seek to induce head-scratching in an admirably straightforward production. The one conceit that does raise the eyebrows is Beppe periodically doubling as Cupid; it’s a redundant feature and veers towards the slightly condescending. Character direction is organic but precise, and Alyson Cummins’ appealing monochrome staging keeps everything clean and sleek.  Ladders litter the set from Act 2 from which Katie Bird’s Suzel mimes the picking of cherries. It’s not wholly convincing, but needs must, and the cherry colours burst not from the trees but from Suzel’s dress, for much of the evening the only colour on stage.

Katie Bird (Suzel) and Paul Carey Jones (David)
© Ali Wright

Simple stagings work when a cast invests itself in the drama and this is yet another production where one can palpably feel the enjoyment of the singers in performing for their audience. Matteo Lippi’s soaring Italianate tenor gave us a Fritz who was alarmed at his own passion; the suavity of his opening lines giving way to a more ardent and unrestrained performance. He was well matched by Bird’s Suzel; her open, earnest singing was at its best in duet with Lippi. Forays into the higher register were generous and sustained, though the lower voice seemed at times underpowered. Bass-baritone Paul Carey Jones can usually be relied upon to bring a blend of vocal and theatrical excellence; here he seemed to have a terrific time as Rabbi David, bouncing across the stage and barely able to conceal his glee as he trolled his bachelor friend. Carey Jones has a robust and dominating instrument, but it was sensitively deployed and there was a strong sense of singing from the text which rounded his performance.

Members of the Opera Holland Park Chorus
© Ali Wright

Kezia Bienek was an earnest Beppe, but her sly expressions as Cupid suggest dramatic abilities that this opera cannot fully exploit. Themba Mvula and Mike Bradley had a great time as Fritz’s two bachelor companions, Hanezò and Federico, making the most of their time on stage. Performance from the pit in this orchestral reduction was exemplary: the City of London Sinfonia under the baton of Beatrice Venezi gave a red-blooded and bold account of the score that belied the reduced numbers. Credit too to leader Martin Burgess whose solo turned into a duet with helicopter (possibly the first ever attempt at a Mascagni/Stockhausen mashup); despite this Burgess persevered with true musicianship. If one wishes to see this appealing rarity, OHP’s production is a very good place to start.


****1