Miami Lyric Opera set to debut rare Mascagni with a rarer Jewish element

By David Fleshler

Pietro Mascagni's rarely heard second opera, "L'Amico Fritz," will be presented this week by Miami Lyric Opera.

Aside from the occasional heroic Old Testament patriarchs, Jewish characters rarely appear in opera. And when they do show up, they often seem to embody the stereotypes of classic European anti-Semitism. They are the bickering, jabbering Jews of Strauss’s Salome or the offstage money lender known as “the Jew Elias” in Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann. And there is the perpetual operatic parlor game of identifying the “Jewish” characteristics Wagner is said to have given to his cunning, grasping villains.

And then there is Pietro Mascagni’s 1891 opera L’Amico Fritz, a warm-hearted, lyrical drama in which one of the central characters is a benevolent rabbi who schemes only to bring romantic love into the lives of his friends. L’Amico Fritz, to be performed Thursday and Saturday by Miami Lyric Opera, is the infrequently performed second opera of a composer whose reputation rests primarily on the fiery, one-act Cavalleria Rusticana, one of the most popular operas in the world.

L’Amico Fritz tells the story of Fritz Kobus, a wealthy but generous Alsatian landowner whose friend Rabbi David is determined to get him married. Fritz wagers one of his vineyards that the rabbi will fail. But then Suzel, the lovely daughter of one of Fritz’s tenants, enters the picture, they sing a duet as she picks cherries, and the formerly self-confident bachelor is suddenly struggling to win his bet.

This light plot serves as a vehicle for romantic, pastoral music that will surprise people who know the composer only through the red-hot drama of Cavalleria. There is little, if anything, overtly Jewish about the music, except possibly for an occasional eastern-European sounding clarinet riff. But Mascagni composed stirring, passionate, idyllic music for this work that should appeal to anyone who enjoys the works of Puccini and other late romantic Italian opera composers.

“Mascagni wanted the melody to be the main point of this opera, instead of a complicated libretto,” said Daniella Carvalho, the Brazil-born, New York-based soprano who will sing Suzel. “So it is beautiful melodies and lush harmonies from beginning to end. Especially the end—the duet with Fritz is really, really beautiful.

“Suzel is a sweet young girl from the countryside and she falls in love with a bachelor who in the beginning says he’s never going to get married, and then he also falls in love with her. It’s a beautiful story, simple but beautiful.”

Despite the presence of a rabbi, there is some disagreement over whether the opera really takes place within a Jewish community. Raffaele Cardone, Miami Lyric’s founder and artistic director, says it does and plans to decorate the sets with Jewish symbols, such as menorahs, and have cast members wear yarmulkes.

But Alan Mallach, author of Pietro Mascagni and his Operas, says the novel and the play on which the opera is based make clear that Fritz and Suzel are Christians for whom the rabbi is just a somewhat exotic authority figure. (The rabbi, everyone agrees, is Jewish.)

“It’s not a Jewish setting,” Mallach said. “It seems like it is, but the play and the novel make it very clear that the rabbi is in a non-Jewish milieu. David the rabbi stands out because he is kind of a figure of difference from Fritz and Fritz’s buddies and Suzel and all these people.”

The extent of the opera’s Jewishness may seem like an academic question, but it acquired terrible gravity in the late 1930s, as Mussolini tried to transform Italy into a Mediterranean Third Reich. As the Nazis were busy scrubbing Mendelssohn’s works from the canon, the Italian authorities ordered the rabbi of L’Amico Fritz changed into the more racially acceptable authority figure of a doctor. The elderly Mascagni, who worshipped Il Duce, did not object.

“The Nazis and the Fascists did not like the idea of a rabbi in an opera, especially a rabbi who was clearly a positive figure and a moral authority,” Mallach said. “Bad rabbis were okay, but this was a good rabbi. There is a recording out—it’s quite a fine one—that was done of Fritz during the war in Milan conducted by Mascagni. At that point Mascagni was about 80, and he was very infirm. He literally had to be carried up to the podium. In that performance, instead of saying rabbino they say dottore. Fortunately, both have three syllables.”

Mascagni composed the opera less than two years after the stupendous success of Cavelleria (an opera that also didn’t exactly shatter stereotypes in its portrait of jealous, homicidal Sicilians). Aware that many people thought the story of Cavalleria had carried the opera more than the music, Mascagni wanted to do something different, an almost bel canto opera in which voice and melody were everything.

“He didn’t like to be identified with the blood-and-guts style of opera at all,” Mallach said. “He said ‘I’m going to write an opera where nobody can accuse the story of driving the music. I’ll show them I can do it just with the music.’

L’Amico Fritz really appealed to Mascagni’s heart. Basically the opera is about how love transforms Fritz. And I think what appealed most to Mascagni about the story was that aspect of it, and the idea of trying to capture that transformation in music, which I think he did quite brilliantly.”

Miami Lyric Opera, which performs at the Colony Theater on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, lacks the budget for lavish sets or a big orchestra. But company founder Cardone, a retired Italian tenor, has a gift for finding good singers and presenting idiomatic and thoughtful performances. The Guatemalan tenor Mario Chang, who sings the role of Fritz, for example, just won first prize in the prestigious Francesco Viñas Contest of Barcelona.

The company doesn’t attempt to compete with Florida Grand Opera, the Palm Beach Opera or Sarasota Opera. But it has created a niche in giving performing opportunities to young singers, many of them excellent, and putting on operas that are rarely heard in South Florida. In prior years this has included the Spanish composer Emilio Arrieta’s Marina, and Bellini’s I Puritani.

In a concession to the opera’s rarity, Miami Lyric Opera will use supertitlex of the Italian text projected above the stage. Although other Florida companies have long since made this concession to popular taste, Cardone has resisted, believing that supertitles attract too much attention to the text, leading audiences to an excessively literal-minded approach to the opera.

“For me, it’s difficult, to be honest,” Cardone said. “I have to do something against myself. I’m not very enthusiastic about supertitles. I believe supertitles sometimes distract people from the music. But we have to be realistic. People don’t know the opera.”

Oscar Martinez, the Mexican baritone who will sing the role of Rabbi David, said he’s looking forward to performing the work partly because of its rarity allowing him more freedom from audience expectations that he would have in a well-known opera like Rigoletto.

“People don’t have these expectations of how you’re supposed to sound, and you have to make a new creation,” he said. “Because the opera is very rare, you can take more freedom to do something different.”

Of the rabbi, he said, “This is not a guy who’s looking for influence or power. He’s trying to make a reality of the work of the Lord. He’s trying to do good things for the people and the community.”

Miami Lyric Opera performs Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz at 8 p.m.  Thursday and Saturday at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach.; 305 674-1040.

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Tue Mar 8, 2011
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