Last Sunday afternoon I saw Merola Opera's second performance of Mascagni's rarely performed L'Amico Fritz, and you might think by now that the title actually is The Rarely Performed L'Amico Fritz, for just as the sea in Homer is always wine-dark, so is L'Amico Fritz always the rarely performed. And the rarity is why I trekked out to the Cowell Theater in Fort Mason, the rent on which must be spectacularly low, since there's no other reason to perform there: it's located conveniently next to nothing but the sea (which on this balmy breezy Sunday was not wine-dark at all, but pea-greenish), and once you're in the right building, you have to walk down about a mile of corridor to the theater, which is a wide, shallow auditorium with poor sightlines and no orchestra pit, so the players are spread out along the front of the stage with the conductor standing right in front of them, blocking the view of anyone behind him, a configuration which did no one any favors; in addition to some bloops in the brass, conductor Warren Jones kept the volume consistently too loud, so that even in that small auditorium the singers had to battle against the orchestra.
I would have gone on Friday night, but I figured that it was just too difficult for a non-driver to get back to the East Bay from Fort Mason late at night. Sunday afternoon was also pretty crowded, since an "indoor gardening expo" in another building had lines stretching out through the full parking lot. Parking difficulties may explain why the performance started twenty minutes late. In case you're wondering at the popularity of indoor gardening, judging from the look and smell of many in the line they were there for tips on growing marijuana in the convenience of their own homes. Local, sustainable, and organic is our motto around here!
"Charming" is this opera's other Homeric epithet. I kept hearing that word murmured in the lobby and restroom during intermission as persistently as I heard the quarking of the seagulls outside during the performance. It is indeed a charming work, the story of Fritz, a bachelor do-gooder (the appealing Nathaniel Peake) who, with a little prodding from the crusty yet benevolent Rabbi David (a forthright Alexsey Bogdanov, and it's a little unclear if the protagonists are all Jewish, or if the ketubah-wielding Rabbi's only influence is as a friend) sings a duet about ripe cherries and consequently falls in mutual love with Suzel, the beautiful daughter of one of his tenants (Sara Gartland, whose bright clear soprano I enjoyed, though I should mention that some of my friends in attendance found her voice excessively bright).
But "peculiar" might be L'Amico Fritz's third epithet. For one thing, this easily gliding pastoral romance is cloaked in verismo-style music which hints at conflicts and passions not really conveyed by the words or actions of the libretto. I assume that the work's eclipse was partly due to the anti-Semitism and fascism of early- to mid-twentieth century Europe, movements which would look askance at a work featuring a generous-hearted Rabbi as Fairy Godfather and named for a do-gooder whose signal deed was rescuing Beppe, a war-wounded Gypsy boy (an appealingly melancholy Maya Lahyani; in this production, the boy had lost an arm, and all of his gypsy music was played on the gramophone, a bit of innovation on the part of director Nic Muni that, like most of the direction, neither added to nor detracted from the point).
But then the message of the work itself isn't exactly free from what you might call certain tendencies that groove into a Fascist aesthetic: the rabbi (whose own family presumably exists but is never mentioned) is insistent that marrying for the purpose of having children is the only proper means of conducting life, and to that end he harangues Fritz and his friends to avoid the corruptions of city sophistication and to embrace the purity and virtue of country life, and I imagine the opera audiences at the premiere were as unlikely a target for either message as were the audiences at Fort Mason this weekend.
Historical circumstances aside, if they can be, the real peculiarity of the work is that there is absolutely no conflict or obstacle for the lovers other than Fritz’s lightweight vow to remain a bachelor: Suzel has no rivals, nothing is made of the differences in background or education or class between the two lovers, and there doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason he can’t just change his mind when he falls in love. Imagine Turandot without In questa reggia, or Much Ado About Nothing without Benedick's obsessive advance and retreat on the idea of love and commitment, and you have L'Amico Fritz. If ever the course of true love was going to run smooth, this is it. So by the end of this relatively short opera (roughly 90 minutes, excluding the intermission), even though I thought Peake and Gartland were at their most intensely committed in the opening of the third act, it was difficult to feel that there was any character-driven motivation for these scenes, or anything to sustain the story except the need to provide a third-act showpiece for the tenor and then the soprano. The music increases in drama just as the drama itself decreases. So, yes, charming! And well worth a troublesome trip on a beautiful day, but also peculiar enough to explain the rarity.