Pietro Mascagni was catapulted to enduring fame in 1889 when his Cavalleria Rusticana won a competition. But the problem with all Italian opera composers at the end of the 19th century was simple: if you weren't Puccini, it was more or less impossible to avoid his shadow. Mascagni is one of a whole group - Leoncavallo, Cilea, Giordano are notable others - who have gone down in history as one hit wonders.

Fritz and Suzel © Fritz Curzon
Fritz and Suzel
© Fritz Curzon

L’amico Fritz was Mascagni's follow-up to Cavalleria and could not be more different in intent: in place of the hard-boiled murder tale, here is a gentle romance in temperate pastoral settings where it all ends happily. Fritz is a wealthy landowner who shows no interest in the women who flock about him; his friend, the Rabbi David, sets him up with Suzel, the daughter of one of his tenant farmers; after the briefest of uncertain moments when we learn that Suzel’s father has attempted to marry her off to someone else, the couple are married. Rarely has the course of true love run so smooth, and never in opera. L’amico Fritz is the only opera I know of where the minister is Jewish and the action ends under a chuppah.

On this flimsiest of plot structures, Mascagni hangs some luscious and versatile music. Much of his sound is not dissimilar to Puccini (with whom he was at one time friendly), with soaring melodies and great use of orchestral colour. One of the Act I passages struck me as particularly individual: the gypsy violinist Beppe arrives to entertain the assembled company and does so with a quite beautiful solo violin piece played by Iwona Bosche on stage (a clever trick with masks enabled her to morph seamlessly into mezzo Patricia Orr). The vocal parts for the three principals are very lovely, and all three singers acquitted themselves well. Anna Leese as Suzel was the undoubted star, giving us a voice that was warm, relaxed and delightfully phrased. Eric Margiore’s Fritz didn’t quite match her, but was smooth and melodic none the less, and they made an appealing couple, nicely set off by the baritone foil of David Stephenson’s matchmaking Rabbi.

Conductor Stuart Stratford kept every moving along cheerfully, and Annilese Miskimmon’s production worked entertainingly enough, turning Fritz into a young property developer in the post-war construction boom of the 1950s. The problem of executing a three act opera (albeit a very short one) with a single interval was resolved amusingly by employing the interval after Act II to have Suzel’s house actually built for us on stage, to the sound of the happy twittering of birds through the effects loudspeakers.

It’s all very pleasant and cheerful stuff, with lovely undemanding music. But the plot is so totally lacking in tension that it’s difficult to care. When I read the synopsis before the opera, I couldn’t decide whether it was intended as a serious romantic piece or as a comedy. After seeing the opera and enjoying the music, I’m still not sure.