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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 31.0° F  Overcast
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University Opera's L'amico Fritz is an enjoyable tale about a wealthy bachelor and a shy peasant girl
L'amico Fritz is a pastoral romance.
Credit:Brent Nicastro

The spring production by University Opera, which launched Friday night at Music Hall, is a seldom-heard work by a composer famous for only one. In 1891, in the immediate wake of his smash hit, the one-act Cavalleria rusticana, Pietro Mascagni was commissioned to compose this new, three-act opera, which became L'amico Fritz (vaguely translatable as "our friend Fritz"). It was based on a play, in turn based on a novel set in Alsace-Lorraine.

Mascagni sought to give each of his operas a dramatic and coloristic style different from the previous one. He was particularly anxious to keep Fritz from sounding anything like Cavalleria, with its impassioned "veristic" melodrama. The result was a new score of pastoral gentleness, tuneful and sweet to the point of unmemorable insipidity. Only the Intermezzo preceding Act III, a fine piece in its own right, has much of what we would recognize as a "Mascagni sound" and is worth repeated hearing. But those who come to Fritz expecting another Cavalleria are in for a surprise.

The plot is one of the most slender in all opera (which does take some doing). It requires three acts for the wealthy and generous Fritz, a "confirmed bachelor," to find that he loves the shy, insecure peasant girl Suzel. The intermediary, an inveterate matchmaker, is not your friendly local priest but your friendly local rabbi, whose religious choice was made presumably for no better reason than that he could quote the Old Testament -- with telling effect in Act II. Neither they nor the lesser characters invite either credibility or sympathy; they just cruise their simplistic, Italianate way to triumphant love.

In the University Opera production, three of the leading roles are double-cast. On Friday evening, I regretted not hearing the singers in the remaining performances, especially soprano Shannon Prickett. But I was hardly short-changed. As Suzel, Cassie Glaeser is certainly a welcome singer, with a powerful and beautiful voice in her important solos. As Fritz, Alex Gmeinder (also in the March 19 cast) offers an attractive tenor voice. Jordan Wilson, who plays Rabbi David throughout the run, has a tight and gritty but very assertive baritone that fits the character appropriately. Bethany Hickman, a high soprano in the trouser role of the Gypsy boy Beppe, nearly stole the show in her two solos. The three minor roles -- two bachelor friends of Fritz, and the servant Caterina -- were handled quite confidently.

Though the acting is often rather stiff, there is hardly much dramatic requirement for it. I did find much charm in Liz Rathke's simple, folksy and whimsical set elements. The English surtitles are reliable, but there were glitches in the projection once or twice on Friday evening.

If there is a particular hero of the production, however, it is conductor James Smith. Despite some weak string playing, he inspires his student orchestra to meet the range of demands, from subtle to strong, in Mascagni's very attractive orchestral writing.

Hardly, then, an opera to remember. But it is a novelty worth hearing on occasion, and director William Farlow's faith in it is justified in the outcome: a very able student presentation allowing us to experience this rarity at least once. It will be repeated at Music Hall on Sunday, March 17, at 3 p.m., and Tuesday, March 19, at 7:30 p.m.

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