It's hard to know whether Deutsche Grammophon's timing with this new recording of Mascagni's L'amico Fritz is unfortunate or ideal.
Bringing together Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu as Fritz Kobus and Suzel in a rare joint recording since his move to DG from EMI (which was his original label and to which Gheorghiu had moved from Decca) was something of a coup. But the promotion of the album must be hard work for the label.
Rumours that the Alagna-Gheorghiu marriage was on the rocks came to a head in recent weeks as Alagna announced in a press interview that the pair were separated, to which the soprano responded by issuing a statement on her website to indicate that after two years of trying to revive their relationship she had initiated divorce proceedings months ago. No longer opera's golden couple, Alagna and Gheorghiu's lives are evidently destined to be apart, and the soprano has just withdrawn from performances of Bizet's Carmen that they were to perform together at the Metropolitan Opera.
So this L'amico Fritz really is something to savour, since there's little sign of the two appearing together again in the near future. What's so sad is that this recording, which was taken from live performances at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in September 2008, still has the same signs of electricity and chemistry that characterised their early performances together. Their timbres are ideally matched – him poetical and lyrical, her delicate but capable of strength at the top during the passionate heights of the second and third acts – and they have an intuitive approach to the piece that suits its rhythmic and metrical fluidity. Listen to how naturally they negotiate the famous ‘Cherry Duet': their lines overlap, their phrasing is ideally matched, and their characterisations are vivid, even on a recording based on a concert performance (i.e. without a staging).
The recording does full justice to Mascagni's second opera, which is oft-admired but rarely performed. Following on from the success of Cavalleria rusticana in his late twenties, the composer wanted a complete contrast. His first piece had been widely admired, but her felt that Cavalleria's reputation focussed too much on the libretto and story and denied him his input as a composer. The verismo movement was not merely concerned with theatre and so-called ‘reality' but also with a new style of composition that brought in unresolved dissonances and modulations and gave the orchestra a more active role in commenting on the drama than had perhaps been the case in Italian opera previously; the post-Wagnerian ethos had taken over.
What Mascagni wanted, therefore, was a libretto containing as little drama as possible, so that the music would be the natural emphasis. And he got his way: the libretto (which was part-constructed by four individuals including the composer) is divided into three acts that simply chart the ups and downs of the courting of Suzel, a simple country girl, by Fritz, a wealthy and misogynist but beneficent landowner. The rabbi David bets Fritz that he will soon be married, and soon he does indeed fall in love with Suzel. But a confusion of identities and a misunderstanding lead them to part, and it takes David to clarify matters and bring them back together in the final act.
This isn't the stuff of high melodrama as in Cavalleria, then, but rather a pastoral story that has its roots in Bellini's La sonnambula and Verdi's Luisa Miller. And it worked the trick: Mascagni's vivid score was given full credit for the opera's success, helping the composer to confirm his prominence amongst Europe's opera composers. Only Verdi didn't approve: on first acquiring the score he described the libretto as ‘idiotic' and was irritated by the ever-changing harmonies, dissonances, modulations, rhythms and tempos.
In a performance of this quality, though, I don't see how anyone could be disappointed. Gheorghiu is especially enchanting, the part of Suzel absolutely suiting her inner intensity and limpid vocal talents, while Alagna's natural, beautiful instrument remains a voice to be reckoned with.
The supporting cast isn't of the same quality, which is a bit of a shame: Laura Polverelli's Beppe (a trouser role) sounds harsh, though the metal in her voice allows her to cut through the lavish orchestration. Better is George Petean's David, which sports a lyrical and attractive sound that only lacks the paternal characterisation which seems essential to me in this role. Yosep Kang (Federico), Hyung-Wook Lee (Hanezo) and Andion Fernandez (Caterina) all make fine, if undistinguished appearances in the smaller roles.
Special credit is due to Alberto Veronesi and the Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin. It takes particular talent to lead this kind of fluid score with success, and Veronesi's close following of the singers' expressivity and his ability to bring out colour from all sections of the orchestra prove that he's well matched to this repertoire.
This ninety-minute opera is something of a soufflé, but when it's as persuasively performed as this there's no reason to look down on it. And who knows – it might be the final collaboration of Gheorghiu and Alagna on record.