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Friendly Fritz Finally Finds Fulfillment

Colony Theatre, Miami Beach
03/10/2011 -  & March 12, 2011
Pietro Mascagni: L’amico Fritz
Mario Chang (Fritz), Daniela Carvalho (Suzel), Oscar Martinez (David), Emilia Acon (Beppe), Jessy Vargas (Federico), Matthew Caines (Hanezò), Daisy Su (Caterina)
Miami Lyric Opera and Chorus, Pablo Hernandez (Chorus Master), Jeff Eckstein (Conductor)
Raffaele Cardone (Director), Carlos Arditti (Scenic Designer), Debhorak Diers Weisman (Costume Consultant), Travis Neff (Lighting Designer)

D. Carvalho & M. Chang (© JMJ Productions)

Miami Lyric Opera was founded in 2004 and has already offered full productions of 16 different operas in addition to many concerts. This little company usually performs in a jewel box of a theatre on Miami Beach seating only 450. MLO has given stunning productions of La bohème, Lucia di Lammermoor and Cavalleria rusticana on a shoestring. The modesty works in the audience’s favor because concentration is placed on the music and text in ways not seen in bigger companies. Imagine Act 4 of La bohème with emphasis on Schaunard’s reaction to Mimi’s death. Few companies would attempt this freshness for a warhorse.

The company’s Artistic Director, Raffaele Cardone feels a duty to introduce the community to works it has rarely, if ever, experienced. In 2009, MLO offered Emilio Arrieta’s Marina, Puccini’s Suor Angelica and Bellini’sI puritani, none hardly a repertory staple. The current season opened with Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz. A daring choice but by trusting his audience, Cardone has developed a dedicated following. For lovers of blood and guts verismo, this opera’s peace and simplicity may startle. A friend once said that he didn’t care for it because he doesn’t like his opera “cute.” But the commitment here was anything but cute.

The storyline for Fritz is unexceptional. Yet the libretto is quite solid; character development is slow enough and engaging enough to be believable if not very dramatic. It is really not unlike a shorter, more intimate and less extravagant version of The Most Happy Fella. The music is the reason for this opera’s existence, and it is very good. So good that it seems a shame that Americans do not know it better. Mascagni is often accused of being bombastic; this opera shows that he could give something quite the opposite.

Ira Siff once wrote that he could not understand why L’amico Fritz is not done at the Metropolitan. It is clear; this opera is just too subtle and would be lost on that mammoth stage, no matter which major stars were cast. Met audiences expect big, and they would be disappointed. Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah vanished after one season for this very reason.

This opera is performed with some regularity in Italy; there is probably something indefinable that is especially endearing to Italians. The same could be said for Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man in that it has never reached significant popularity in non-American English-speaking countries.

MLO’s production was an enormous success. Mr. Cardone understands the “less is more” theatre mantra. His approach was to find the near tragedy in the chance that the lovers would not connect and to accentuate the joy when they finally do. There is such an honest kindness in Fritz and his friends that when the lovely Daisy Su, playing the maid Caterina, had a not so subtle accident while serving the champagne toast, it seems perfectly logical that this group of buddies would be amused, not at all serious. The stage exuded love and not just between the couple. There was a genuinely affectionate camaraderie among all the players.

The cast was quite polished, with the men outshining the women but this is by no means a complaint. Trouser roles can often be a treat. In Fritz the character is a gypsy boy, Beppe, who plays a mean violin solo (gorgeously interpreted by Liubov Orimenko) that makes the soprano and audience cry. Emilia Acon is just a trifle short in her performance. Her lean stature well identifies Beppe and her mezzo is suitably dark; but she seems to be holding back, not letting the voice soar, perhaps opening night nerves. Suzel is a character not typical in opera. She is the farmer’s daughter, the farmer just happening to be one of Fritz’s tenants. Her loveliness wins over the heart of the middle-aged bachelor who has made a vow that he will never marry. Daniela Carvalho has no trouble with vocal power. Though when the voice ascends the scale, there can be an unpleasant tinny sound; when she stopped forcing, things were quite beautiful. Regardless, Suzel fits her like a glove. With her toothy Mirella Freni-like smile and vulnerability, she charms everyone.

Oscar Martinez playing the rabbi, David, made the character’s motivations more understandable than usual. The game he has created is clearer; his amusement at watching the expected outcome unfold is not unlike Don Alfonso’s but more loving since he has only the couple’s best interests in mind. Martinez has a solid and round baritone, his pitch never wavered; his Bible story scene with Suzel was particularly moving. But since the production has made the Jewish setting evident with a noticeable menorah in the dining room, why does David wear a Clem Kadiddlehopper cap when a yarmulke would be more appropriate? Then again, the characters’ religion in this opera is secondary to the plot; this could easily be a Catholic or Protestant community. Yet the ambitious Mascagni even finds a klezmerish tone with the clarinet and the second act demonstrates a quite noticeable Hebraic sound. Minor key changes abound and are quietly powerful.

But this opera’s success rests on its title character. In Mario Chang, MLO has made a huge discovery. This could be the tenor we have all been waiting for. Everything is there: power, emotion, good looks and natural acting. But at 24 he cannot hide his youth and the May-December romance can’t happen. A little silver in his hair would be too obvious since Chang still has an adorable baby face. Nitpicking like this is pointless. A new star has arrived; let’s hope that unlike so many others, he has the patience to wait before attempting a more dramatic repertoire. And let’s hope that L’amico Fritz finds its way into more houses so that in 20 years, Mr. Chang has that much more dimension to bring to the character. It is hard to imagine more pain than he brought to “O amore, o bella luce del core.”

Though MLO’s orchestra has a few glitches here and there, this was a very tender reading of the score by conductor Jeff Eckstein. The chorus’s presence is slight but offers a heartwarming contribution under the direction of Pablo Hernandez. It is rare that any orchestra gets a chance with L’amico Fritz and the size of the orchestra was most suitable to this theatre. The famous Intermezzo finally does not overwhelm.

So Cardone gets another notch in his belt by offering Miami a treat that almost no other American community will ever experience. How rare and refreshing it is to see an opera with love and kindness; and characters doing good things for good people!

The Miami Lyric Opera

Jeff Haller



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