Review: L'AMICO FRITZ, Opera Holland Park

Upbeat Italian romcom is the cherry on the cake

By: Jul. 23, 2021

Review: L'AMICO FRITZ, Opera Holland Park

Review: L'AMICO FRITZ, Opera Holland Park At the annual festival of hanami, the Japanese celebrate the sakura (cherry blossom), which symbolises love, strength and reincarnation. Many Japanese people believe you should enjoy being in the moment and not become too attached to something, as it could perish quickly - just like the short-lived blooms.

This 'to hell with tomorrow, let's revel in today' spirit was in evidence at a summer evening performance of L'Amico Fritz at Opera Holland Park, where floral summer frocks, glasses of Prosecco and upmarket picnics abounded.

Pietro Mascagni's three-act opera, written in 1891 (a year after his more famous Cavalleria rusticana), embraces this joie de vivre tone. Thankfully, the plot isn't too demanding; there's only so much bad news we can bear these days. A wealthy landowner disdains love, then discovers it with a farmer's daughter while picking cherries. Things get a bit confused, but love triumphs in the end.

There's also a jolly Fiddler on the Roof-ish side bet with a rabbi who's keen to seal the marriage deal for the couple, and a surprisingly strong theme of friendship and acceptance. The opera was based on L'Ami Fritz, an 1864 novel by Erkmann-Chatrian located in a part of the Alsace where various communities - Anabaptists, Protestants, Jews and Catholics - managed to happily rub along together. Fritz, the lead character, is the personification of this harmony, wanting to live well in good friendship with those he loves.

If you're after carmine-flecked orchards and sunlit skies, you'll have to imagine them. Instead, director Julia Burbach's production steers towards a modernist, colourless set by designer Alyson Cummins, featuring large white ladders - all the better to clamber up and get fistfuls of those ripe cherries.

Equally, costumes are a nod to Farrow & Ball greys, blacks and whites. Fritz's birthday party reminded me of the striking Cecil Beaton scene in My Fair Lady - its monochromatic look punctured by Suzel's cerise flowered dress. When conductor Beatrice Venezi sweeps onto the thrust stage (specially designed with Covid safety for the artists in mind) in a fantastic black concoction, she appears to be a feature of the design scheme.

Venezi leads a scaled-down City of London Sinfonia orchestra, which performs with great precision - especially the woodwind, two French horns and solo trumpet. Inevitably, however, only four violins results in a lack of warmth, particularly in the pianissimo passages.

Italian tenor Matteo Lippi, playing the role of Fritz, looks and sounds like a potted Pavarotti, which is no surprise as both hail from Modena. His voice blends beautifully with soprano Katie Bird's (Suzel), especially in the famous Cherry Duet. Both lovers exude great confidence - not always easy, as their celebrated duet is sung on the thrust stage with their backs to the conductor and orchestra.

Baritone Paul Carey Jones's (David, the rabbi) voice is a rich as a cherry brandy liqueur, and the reduced 12-singer chorus is perfectly in proportion to the orchestra and overall production.

However, one of the joys of live performance is that things can go awry. Kezia Bienek (Beppe) was hampered by a sore throat last night, but she pluckily acted on stage while her part was beautifully sung from the pit by Victoria Simmonds. And late stand-in lead violinist Charlotte Reid excelled playing Beppe's gypsy violin solo in Act I.

Audience seating is also in a Covid-friendly class of its own. Instead of the usual more formal 1,000-seater format, Takis came up with a cosy layout of 400 mismatched drawing room chairs and pocket-sized side tables, which my companion likened to a ducal reception room.

One hopes the fortunes of Opera Holland Park will not be fleeting like the sakura. Already, the outlook is optimistic. Roots in the community are deep, with very loyal sponsors. One example is the hugely successful SOS: Save our Seats campaign, where people buy the missing 60% of seats in the auditorium when booking their own tickets. More than 1,000 people have purchased extra tickets to date, helping to ensure Opera Holland Park will continue to blossom for many years to come.

L'Amico Fritz at Opera Holland Park until 31 July

Photo credit: Ali Wright


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