L'amico Fritz, Opera Holland Park, London
Rigoletto, Grange Park Opera, Hampshire
Christophe Rousset / Tabea Zimmermann, Aldeburgh Festival, Suffolk
An Italian rarity is sung with charm, looks a treat, and is conducted as if it were the greatest score ever written
Sunday 19 June 2011
As sweet as a punnet of cherries, Pietro Mascagni's L'amico Fritz is the latest Italian rarity to be revived by Opera Holland Park.
Based on Erckmann-Chatrian's story of a middle-aged bachelor surprised by love in Alsace, Verdi pronounced it "the worst libretto I've ever seen". The music breezes and eddies conversationally, occasionally blossoming into klezmer-inflected rhapsodies or a rosy intermezzo. Every character is kind and decent, and dramatic tension is restricted to a daisy-chain flutter of will-he-won't-he. Yet Annilese Miskimmon's pastel-perfect 1950s production lends wit and fibre to this slender, tender romance.
Nicky Shaw's crisp designs place us in the idealised America of a Norman Rockwell illustration. Wealthy and successful, with a squadron of swooning secretaries, our handsome hero (Eric Margiore) has little need of a wife, to the consternation of his friend, Rabbi David (David Stephenson). Fritz is already father to a dozen pink-cheeked orphans: beneficiaries of a business building "The Perfect Home for Your Perfect Wife". Were this a Douglas Sirk movie, he would be wracked with forbidden desires of one sort or another. But it's pure Frank Capra. For that perfect wife is right under Fritz's nose, tending the cherry orchard.
The director draws her characters delicately and confidently, from Fritz's Martini-marinaded sidekicks (Robert Burt and Simon Wilding) to Susan Young's devoted office manager, Caterina. The sexual politics of the era – scarcely different from Erckmann-Chatrian's 1860s original – are deftly realised. Beppe the Fiddler is niftily double-cast and sweetly sung and played by mezzo-soprano Patricia Orr and violinist Iwona Boesche. As girl-next-door Suzel, Anna Leese is adorable to watch and radiant on the ear, with enough steel and gleam to promise a feisty marriage. Stephenson sings with warmth and gravitas, while Margiore has strong comic timing, chiselled cheekbones and a bright, attractive voice. As Rabbi David transforms his prayer shawl into a chuppah, Fritz's last gulp of scotch as a single man is an interesting touch. Is Suzel doomed to a sexless union? Sirkian undercurrents aside, the City of London Sinfonia plays with blissful suavity, and Stuart Stratford conducts Mascagni's score as though it were the greatest ever written. It isn't. But it is a rarity to cherish.
British opera's fascination with Judaica continues in Daniel Slater's Grange Park Opera production of Rigoletto. The look is Weegee (designs by Angela Davies), the setting 1950s Los Angeles, with the Duke (Marco Panuccio) as the corrupt head of the LAPD, and Rigoletto (Damiano Salerno) as the chief reporter of a Hollywood gossip-rag called The Jester. If Rigoletto's physical deformity is slight in this staging – no hunchback but a port-wine stain – his psychological deformity is the greater. Jewish himself, his mockery of Andrew Greenan's Monterone (here an Orthodox Jew) becomes an expression of violent self-hatred. Meanwhile, Gilda (Laura Mitchell) keeps a kosher house, fruitlessly questioning her father about his past.
Whatever Slater's backstory is, the bones of Verdi's jester are unchanged and perhaps even intensified in Salerno's charred and twisted performance. There's a depth of desperation, ostracisation and fury here that is startling, while Mitchell's fragility and resolve are equally immediate. Panuccio's Duke is a chilling creation, perhaps too fastidious to convince as a sex addict and a little reticent in making free with Carolyn Dobbin's Maddalena. The ensembles are well-balanced, the English Chamber Orchestra's performance under Toby Purser as vivid and precise as its Wagner was not. Like Stratford, Purser can colour a moment without losing propulsion or line.
Christophe Rousset's Aldeburgh Festival recital traced the development of the harpsichord suite from the semi-secretive fragments of Louis Couperin's C minor Suite to the Eighth Ordre from François Couperin's second Livre de pièces de clavecin. Published 10 years before Les Nations but as dazzling in its contrasts between feminine and masculine, ornate and rustic, the younger Couperin's work has a volatile beauty that suited the heavy glitter of the Alan Gotto harpsichord better than Uncle Louis's improvisatory miniatures or the fitful energy of Handel's D and G minor Suites. Rousset's passage work is reliably thrilling, but it was his rhythmic flexibility that most impressed – that "just so" placement of a final trill.
Everything in viola player Tabea Zimmermann's concert with clarinettist Jörg Widmann and pianist Kirill Gerstein was "just so", with the possible exception of the acoustics. Textures as mellow as those of Mozart's Trio in E flat lose definition in the Maltings, whereas the vaulting gasps of Schumann's Märchenerzählungen spring fresh from the page. This was a painterly programme – Chagall for Ligeti's Sonata, Klimt for Berg's Vier Stücke, Millais for Knussen's wistful piano solo Ophelia's Last Dance – with a flash of Blue Note graphics in Widmann's jazz-influenced Fantasie. As for Zimmermann's right arm, only a poet could do it justice.
'L'amico Fritz' (0300 999 1000) to Sat; 'Rigoletto' (01962 737366) to 1 Jul
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James Weeks and Exaudi perform Ligeti's Lux Aeterna as part of video-artist and director Netia Jones's open-air multimedia reflection on Sizewell, at the Aldeburgh Festival (Wed & Thu). Meanwhile (from Mon), Garsington Opera dusts off another rarity: Vivaldi's La verità in cimento, first performed at the Venice Carnival in 1720.
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