BWW Reviews: Winter Opera St. Louis Shines with Rare Mascagni
libretto by P. Suardon
Winter Opera, January 23, 2015
This review by Steve Callahan was first published by KDHX, St. Louis.
Winter Opera St. Louis, after a brilliant production of "Le Nozze di Figaro", continues its eighth season with a venture into less familiar fare - Pietro Mascagni's "L'amico Fritz". Mascagni is, of course, famous for his beloved "Cavalleria rusticana", which remains one of the world's most frequently produced operas. "Cavalleria" was his first opera, opening in 1890 when Mascagni was only 26. "L'amico Fritz" was written the following year and it's the composer's second most popular work, though it's far less generally familiar. Over the next 34 years Mascagni produced thirteen more operas, but none met the success of his first two works.
"L'amico Fritz" is a rustic idyll set in, perhaps, Alsace. Its plot is simplicity itself (in sharp contrast to that of "Nozze di Figaro"). Fritz Kobus, a wealthy land-owner, is celebrating his birthday. Suzel, a lovely farm girl brings him a gift of flowers. When she's gone Fritz's friend, Rabbi David, expresses his intention to find a husband for Suzel. Fritz thinks she's too young and, as far as he himself is concerned, he declares his commitment to always remain a bachelor; in fact he bets David one of his vineyards that he will never marry.
But later Fritz meets Suzel when she's picking cherries. They sing a gorgeous duet. He is truly smitten with her--and she with him. When Rabbi David announces that Suzel has become engaged to a young man not of her choosing she despairs--and Fritz is forced to admit to himself that he adores the girl. In the end all is resolved with the engagement of Fritz and Suzel.
That's it. That's the plot: the tenor needs a minor nudge from the baritone to realize his love for the soprano. But, as another reviewer once remarked, "Mascagni delivers beautiful music, libretto be damned." And Winter Opera renders this music with all the skill and finesse its beauty deserves.
The opening "preludietta" with its lilting flutes and reeds combines with Scott Loebl's utterly gorgeous vast scenic landscape to convey the very breath of idyllic, rustic spring. Lighting by Sean Savoie fills this world with a fresh pale, greenish air as though the light were filtered through burgeoning leaves. Later, in the cherry orchard, the set takes on a warmer glow--like a scene from Millet. It's stunningly beautiful work by both designers.
The strong cast of seven (with an unseen chorus) is led by Gina Galati as Suzel and Jorge Pita Carreras as Fritz. (Miss Galati is the artistic director of Winter opera.) These two singers have splendid voices and they are exquisitely matched. One notices especially in the famously beautiful cherry duet that even their vibratos seem to be precisely synchronized.
Rabbi David is sung by Eric McKeever with a clear and powerful baritone. Clark Sturtevant and Winston Sullivan bring their fine voices to the roles of Fritz's friends, Frederico and Hanezo, respectively, and Sharon Sullivan is excellent in the role of the servant Caterina.
One bright flame who dances around this production is Sara Louise Petrocelli in the "breeches" role of Beppe, the Gypsy violinist. She's petite, but has a gorgeous strong voice and most expressive eyes.
The off-stage chorus is heard from time to time, drifting like a breeze through this idyllic scene. They are always lovely--sometimes even ethereal.
So despite the rather bland libretto, "L'amico Fritz" offers much great beauty to us. The orchestra, under the direction of Andy Anderson, does excellent work and maintains a lovely balance with the voices.
I was again impressed with the acoustics of the Viragh performing arts center on the Chaminade campus. The timbre of each instrument carries so clearly; one can sense the very fibers of the reeds, almost the wood-grain of the violins. It's a perfect place for opera.
Winter Opera's production of Mascagni's "L'amico Fritz" is one more blessing for the St. Louis opera world.