12 October 2009

CD REVIEW: Pietro Mascagni – L’AMICO FRITZ (R. Alagna, A. Gheorghiu, L. Polverelli, G. Petean; DGG)

Mascagni: L'AMICO FRITZ (DGG) PIETRO MASCAGNI (1863 – 1945): L’Amico Fritz – R. Alagna (Fritz Kobus), A. Gheorghiu (Suzel), L. Polverelli (Beppe), G. Petean (David), Y. Kang (Federico), H.-W. Lee (Hanezò), A. Fernández (Caterina); Chor und Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin; Alberto Veronesi [recorded during a concert performance at the Deutsche Oper Berlin on 20 September 2008; DGG 477 8358 9]

To many English-speaking audiences, the name Mascagni inspires thoughts almost solely of Cavalleria rusticana, the brilliant success of the composer’s youth that inspired him later in life to lament having been ‘crowned before [he] was king.’  It is unquestionably upon Cavalleria rusticana that Mascagni’s enduring international reputation rests, but he in fact composed a further sixteen works for the stage, many of which were tremendously popular in the years following their first performances.  Some of the finest of these – Iris, Isabeau, Lodoletta, and Il piccolo Marat – have retained their attractiveness to Italian audiences and are still performed in Italian theatres, even without luring the finer singers of our age into participation.

An exception to this neglect by famous singers has to some extent been enjoyed by L’Amico Fritz, Mascagni’s setting of an idyllic but discreetly ironic love story drawn from a French novel by Émile Erckmann and Pierre-Alexandre Chatrian.  First performed on 31 October 1891, the début cast included Fernando De Lucia (remembered by record collectors as a brilliant interpreter of bel canto arias) and Emma Calvé.  During World War II, L’Amico Fritz became a congenial vehicle for Ferruccio Tagliavini and Pia Tassinari, whose popularity in their roles facilitated the opera’s first recording in 1942.  After the passage of twenty-six years, L’Amico Fritz found another pair of ideally-matched interpreters, two young singers who were acquainted virtually from their shared infancy in Modena, Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni.  Following a successful production of the opera at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, EMI captured the charm and freshness of Pavarotti’s and Freni’s performances in the recording studio, producing a lovely, touching, and superbly-sung performance that introduced worldwide audiences to the finest qualities of L’Amico Fritz.

Taken from an almost absurdly acclaimed concert performance at Deutsche Oper Berlin, Deutsche Grammophon’s new recording of L’Amico Fritz both succeeds and fails as a representation of what might be termed a twenty-first century approach to the score and as a successor to the 1968 EMI recording.  Sonically, the DGG set has the clear advantage of modern, digital sound, an advantage that is only very slightly compromised by the ‘live’ circumstances of the recording.  In fact, the Berlin audience for this concert performance were very quiet (or, else, have been very carefully edited), and the ambient noises that affect even the most controlled of ‘live’ recording situations are minimized.  The orchestra of the Deutsche Oper play with tone that, while not idiomatically Italianate in the manner of the formidable La Scala ensembles of previous generations, combines precision with involvement.  Instrumental blends are judged with attention to Mascagni’s often lively and original tonal palette.  The chorus sing with intonational and rhythmic accuracy that do not always avoid conjuring memories of the grand Germanic liturgical traditions, but their diction is generally clear and scarcely encumbered by north-of-the-Alps accents.  As with some of the famous recordings of Italian scores made with Teutonic orchestras by Herbert von Karajan, a measure of authentically Italian chiaroscuro is sacrificed, but the integrity of the music-making by both chorus and orchestra is rewarding in its own right.

Presiding over this performance and contributing to what DGG are promoting as a sort of Verismo Series (following his conducting of the label’s studio recording of Puccini’s Edgar with Plácido Domingo), Alberto Veronesi brings a lively musical intelligence and seemingly genuine interest in the music to this performance.  Concert performances can prove more challenging than staged productions for conductors in that animation and engagement among cast and musicians can be elusive, but Maestro Veronesi shapes the performance in a way that evokes subtle dramatic action.  Though there are instances in which the pacing of individual melodic phrases seems forced, on the whole Maestro Veronesi conducts with grace and an ear for the score’s nuances, avoiding the idiosyncratic missteps of many of today’s operatic conductors but also lacking the complete mastery of the idiom remembered from pre-war conductors.

An obvious advance beyond previous recorded performances boasted by DGG’s new recording is in the casting of secondary roles, which benefit here from several fine voices.  Completely surpassing her recorded rivals is Italian mezzo-soprano Laura Polverelli as the violin-playing gypsy Beppe.  Considerable experience in Baroque and bel canto scores has perhaps provided Ms. Polverelli with a special talent for adapting her lovely tone to male roles.  In this performance, Ms. Polverelli gives Beppe a winsome, even slightly mischievous profile, singing with charm and emotional honesty.  Only occasional bouts with unsteadiness prevent Ms. Polverelli’s performance from being beyond reproach, but she brings to Beppe both a voice and a performance more ingratiating than those of her predecessors.  David, the wily village Rabbi (a kinsman of Alfonso in Mozart’s Così fan tutte and Kecal in Smetana’s Prodaná nevěsta), is sung with assurance and firm tone by the young Romanian baritone George Petean: what is missing is a sense of genuine connection with the character.  David is not, in the context of L’Amico Fritz, a character study of Shakespearean proportions – no Shylock, he – but there are elements of rustic charm, sly but well-intentioned manipulation, and self-effacing humor that are short-changed in this performance.  With a David understated to the point of insignificance, the ironic undertones of the opera are ignored: in short, the opera becomes another unexceptional story of boy and girl overcoming adversity, of a decidedly inert nature in this case, in order to develop a love that has seemed pre-ordained since the curtain went up on the first scene.  None of this is meant to suggest that Mr. Petean’s vocalism is in any way poor, but David is one of those strangely numerous roles in opera in which merely good singing does not carry the day.  The opera’s other, smaller roles are taken by capable singers whose performances do not hide the fact that Mascagni and his librettists (Nicola Daspuro and Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti) gave them few opportunities to make themselves noticed.

Certainly, the primary focus of any listener who purchases or elects to spend ninety minutes with this recording will be on the star couple in the leading roles of Fritz and Suzel.  It is sadly ironic that this recording of an opera in which two reluctant lovers are brought together is released at the same time at which its stars have publicly confirmed their separation and intentions for divorce.  Nonetheless, personal issues were held at bay for those ninety minutes in Berlin, and we are given a persuasive, even touching account of blossoming love.  It could be argued that the role of an ingénue like Suzel is no longer ‘right’ for Angela Gheorghiu.  She proved herself during the past two Metropolitan Opera seasons to remain effective as Donizetti’s Adina and Puccini’s Mimì, however, and she ultimately proves effective as Suzel, as well.  Ms. Gheorghiu’s voice is darker and less mobile, particularly in the upper register, than it was when her shimmering lyric soprano first captured the attention and appreciation of audiences, but she has developed measurably as an interpreter – rather than merely a singer – of music.  The role of Suzel does not engage the fiery dramatic sensibilities Ms. Gheorghiu has fostered during the past decade of her career, but she is a sensitive and sensible singer who understands the value of letting music of lyrical melodic beauty make its effect without overloading the line with dramatic histrionics.  Still, Ms. Gheorghiu’s approach to Suzel is vastly different from that employed by Mirella Freni, who sang and recorded the role very early in her international career.  Ms. Gheorghiu’s is a more aware, less naive Suzel, one for whom love is a less frightening and embarrassing emotion.  To her credit, Ms. Gheorghiu resists any temptations to artificially lighten or adjust her voice to the requirements of Suzel’s music but also avoids allowing the dark patina of her timbre to create an impression of sluggishness or indifference.  Ms. Gheorghiu sings with passion on an appropriate scale and surpasses her work on several recent recordings, including the much-discussed Madama Butterfly.  Ultimately, it is possible to debate whether Ms. Gheorghiu’s performance amounts to a wholly successful account of Suzel, but her performance impresses when evaluated on its own merits.

There can be little debate about the success of Roberto Alagna’s singing in the title role.  Not unlike Ms. Gheorghiu, Mr. Alagna has developed into an artist of greater subtlety than he was in the early years of his career, the voice gaining thrust but losing some of the pliancy with which he conquered audiences in lyric roles.  As with Plácido Domingo at an equivalent point in his career, Mr. Alagna’s experience in heavier roles is audible, not so much in wear to the voice as in a discernibly ‘larger’ approach to singing in general.  Significantly, some of Mr. Domingo’s finest performances of lighter roles such as Nemorino (a staple of Mr. Alagna’s early career) were sung after his assumption of Verdi’s Alvaro, Don Carlo, and Otello.  There has always been with Mr. Alagna a slightly worrisome notion of very fine natural vocal material being used with imperfect technique.  There have also been numerous instances like those of his two MET performances of Gounod’s Roméo in December 2007, in which, contrary to logic, Mr. Alagna has achieved sublime heights of musical and dramatic eloquence.  If this performance of Fritz does not represent Mr. Alagna at his absolute best, the deviation from that high standard is very slight indeed.  In terms of liquid ease in vocalizing, Mr. Alagna compares unfavorably with Luciano Pavarotti, who – like Ms. Freni – recorded his role in L’Amico Fritz in the early years of his career.  In portraying a rounded character whose emotional responses to the action are inherent in his singing, however, Mr. Alagna is second to no other Fritz on records.  Mr. Alagna brings a stronger tone to Fritz than either Tagliavini or Pavarotti, and this fits ideally with the darker tones of Ms. Gheorghiu’s Suzel.  Most compellingly, Mr. Alagna is completely inside his role, even in the context of a concert performance, using diction and projection to compensate for the elements of lightness and playfulness that may have been reduced by time and a rigorous career.  In moments of stress (which, to be frank, are less plentiful than might be imagined), great care is taken to maintain correct pitch and sustain lines.  It is possible to feel that, taken as a whole, Mr. Alagna’s performance increases Fritz’s importance beyond what can be musically justified, but the quality of the singing and vocal acting are wonderful.  Ms. Gheorghiu’s Suzel is an improvement on some of her recent recorded performances because those showed her beautiful voice subjected to pushing and dramatic overstatement.  Mr. Alagna’s Fritz is among his best recorded performances because it preserves an occasion of committed, emotionally-charged singing from a very fine voice on form.

The two previous commercial recordings of L’Amico Fritz presented listeners with youthful accounts of love blossoming like the vines on Fritz’s estate.  The new DGG recording, largely thanks to the singing of Mr. Alagna and Ms. Gheorghiu, gives a perceptibly more mature view of the score, emphasizing the expansive nature of the emotions at the core of the work.  L’Amico Fritz was Mascagni’s second opera, composed when its creator was in his mid-twenties.  Perhaps the seeming depth of this performance is not altogether faithful to the spirit of Mascagni’s score, but it is thoroughly refreshing to encounter a performance of a heart-on-the-sleeve romantic opera in which it is clear that love is a serious business in which there inevitably are casualties.

Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu during the 20 September 2008 concert performance of L'AMICO FRITZ