It must seem as though all soprano Anna Leese’s birthdays have come at once. Within a couple of days of opening in L’amico Fritz at Holland Park, she takes part in the finals of the Cardiff Singer of the World, presided over by her fellow New Zealander Kiri Te Kanawa. If the rich, strong voice and utterly charming stage presence she displays here is anything to go by, she’s in with a pretty good chance.
Leese, who impressed both audience and management in a small role in Francesca da Rimini last season, is exquisite as the ripe-as-a-cherry heroine Suzel. Promising American tenor Eric Margiore is Fritz Kobus, the benevolent landowner who’s reluctant to acknowledge his capacity for love. He has a sweet sound that doesn't quite cut through the orchestra for the big moments but is otherwise a fine match for Leese.
The work’s most famous number, the so-called “Cherry Duet”, is played with infinite grace by the young couple and David Stephenson excels as Fritz’s rabbi friend David who cunningly draws the two together.
Mascagni’s opera couldn’t be in greater contrast to his worldwide hit Cavalleria Rusticana, which preceded it by two years. The blood and thunder melodrama of the earlier work was followed by the sunniest of works and it’s a wonder this enchanting score isn’t better known.
The unadorned story – Girl Meets Boy, Boy Plays Hard To Get, Girl Picks Fruit – is simplicity itself. Annilese Miskimmon’s updating to 1950s America (great sets by Nicky Shaw) doesn’t always acknowledge the rustic charm of the original setting but works well enough.
The outer acts take place in an office straight out of Mad Men, with the Pollyannaish second act set on the great American Plains, a white box showhouse surrounded by a fence you can imagine Tom Sawyer painting. The switch between the two is ingeniously done, although there’s an ugly hiatus while we wait for an unnecessary roof to be womanhandled into place. It’s a minor blip in an otherwise delightful evening.
The Act Three Intermezzo is given a rousing performance by Stuart Stratford and the City of London Sinfonia, who are on great form all evening, as are the off-stage chorus. A neat trick involving violin-playing Beppe, an ailing (not that you’d notice it) Patricia Orr, which I confess I didn't get until the curtain call, points to the deftness of the whole evening.
A hearty recommendation then for the first of two Italian rarities this season (Catalani’s barnstorming La Wally follows in July). And the venue’s new extended orchestra pit is simply splendid.
- Simon Thomas