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Aesthetics of Judaism in L ’amico Fritz

Students of Opera programme are writing about general representations of Jewishness in opera, Jewishness in the libretto of L’amico Fritz and Jewishness in the music of L’amico Fritz.

Puccinin ja Mascagnin siluetit vihreällä taustalla

Writers: Iris Candelaria, Manon Gleizes, Stella Tähtinen

The beautiful music speaks much louder than words in Pietro Mascagni’s (1863−1945) opera L’amico Fritz (1891), which very likely has never before been performed on Finnish opera stages. This romantic drama has a light and simple story, in which Fritz Kobus, a wealthy but benevolent bachelor who has sworn to never marry, bets his vineyards against his friend David the rabbi who is sure to find a wife for his friend. Fritz meets his tenant’s daughter Suzel, who brings flowers for his birthday. They fall in love instantly and Fritz is to lose his wager.

David the Rabbi sets the context of Judaism for this opera; he is a Jewish teacher and thus a representative of the Jewish religion. His character gives an opportunity to explore this opera from an angle that is not so often used in operatic texts: Jewishness. In general, Jewishness is a whole world in itself, a culture, an aesthetic, that has its own vocabulary and historical references. Therefore, our understanding of it is based on an outside point of view – what we have learned in school, what books we have read and how we have seen Jewishness represented in western popular culture. In addition, we are painfully aware of the history of antisemitism, racism and othering of Jewish people. Due to this complexity, writing about the representations of Jewishness in opera and L’ amico Fritz, in particular, was a challenge.

However, we are happy and proud to be the first to bring L ’amico Fritz on stage in Finland and present our analysis about it in this text. The text will continue as follows: general representations of Jewishness in opera, Jewishness in the libretto of L’amico Fritz and Jewishness in the music of L’amico Fritz.

Opera and representations of Jewishness and Otherness in general

There are several ways of representing Jewishness in art. Depending on the perspective, these representations have been positive or negative. In Christian art contexts, Jews have often been described negatively, and that is the case also in theatre. For instance, in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596), the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, is the principal antagonist in the story. Naturally, these characters transferred into opera, too. In particular, in comic opera, there are several caricatures referring to Jewishness, such as the apothecary, Sempronio, in Joseph Haydn’s Lo speziale (Clark, 2009).

The background for this phenomenon lays deep in history. Already in Antiquity there was antisemitism which has continued throughout the Crusades and World War II until today. In Europe, Jews have long been othered from the European Christian community; they were forced to live in separate areas from the majority and few occupations were open to them. They were valued for their skill of money handling and banking connections. Jews were considered to be different in terms of looks, beliefs, behaviour and speech. Out of these general prejudices, came the stereotypes and sometimes even demonic caricatures of the Jew which have been represented and mocked endlessly in literature and theatrical work, as well as in opera.

Interestingly, there is not only one, but two characters in L’amico Fritz, that refer to the Other – David, the Rabbi and Beppe, the gipsy man. Both of these characters represent groups of people that were not fully accepted in society, although living in it; they were “coded as Other yet residing within, not away” (Clark, 2009, p. 4). The character of Beppe is a trouser role, which means that it is sung by a woman. Thus, in addition to Beppe being a part of the travelling community, we also face gender.

David in particular does not live up to the stereotypical portrayal of the Jew on stage. He is an integral part of the operas community, and the context of religion and cultural background becomes unapparent with his character, as he is just a close friend of Fritz’s whose mission is to bring love to his life.

Jewishness in the libretto: Biblical references

L’amico Fritz’s libretto holds many references to the Bible, more specifically the Old Testament which is based on the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Tanakh. The idyllic countryside aesthetic of the opera bears similarities to the aesthetic of the Song of Songs. The Song of Songs is poetry about erotic love and matrimony but in Jewish tradition, it is also seen as an allegory of God’s love of the people of Israel. Just like the Song of Songs, L’amico Fritz is full of mentions of flowers and fruits, more specifically cherries which are a part of the imagery of sexual love. These symbols will be discussed in further detail later on in this text.

In the middle of the second act, David and Suzel have a duet in which he tests her on her knowledge of the story of Rebecca, who in the Bible was the wife of Abraham’s son Isaac. The reason for this is simply that David knows Suzel to be the perfect match for Fritz and wants not only to confirm this with himself, but also to see where she stands in her mind about the idea of Fritz as a spouse. In other words, he is planting the seed for their marriage. Of course on a larger scale, comparing Suzel and Fritz’s love and marriage to that of a biblical patriarch and his spouse can also be seen as a sign of the fact that Suzel and Fritz’s love is much more than just a fling; it is predestined to happen. The sequence in question musically bears similarities to a hymn with its harmonic structure and leads to a turning point in which Suzel covers her face when Fritz returns. This gesture is symbolic of the face-covering ceremony often present in traditional Jewish wedding ceremonies through which the groom shows that he is not interested in the outer, but in fact the inner beauty of his bride. In the opera, this gesture foretells their future wedding.

As previously mentioned, David is the matchmaker in the opera’s community, which makes sense as he is a Rabbi, and marriage in traditional Judaism is not only viewed as a contract between a man and a woman, but also God. The Jewish belief that a man is not complete until married crystallises in a couple of David’s lines: in Act I when trying to speak sense into the other men in the opera to try and make them realise they too need to marry, he quotes the Sermon on the Mount saying “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is thrown into the fire” (“Gitta nel fuoco l’albero che senza frutti visse”) implying that in his mind life without love is useless. This same idea is repeated in Act III where he states “Pity the one who is alone!” (“Al solitario guai!”). It seems, in fact, that this idea of marriage as the most important thing that makes life complete, is a carrying theme in L’amico Fritz.

Symbolism of innocence and sexuality in L’amico Fritz: Violets and cherries

The libretto of L’amico Fritz is full of nature-related symbolism which resembles that of The Song of Songs. The story is placed on a farm in Alsace which Fritz owns and where young Suzel is living and working with his father. Suzel enters the stage with flowers she has picked for Fritz for his birthday. The violets represent Suzel’s purity and innocence. Her special bond with nature can be seen in the way she interprets the inner life of these flowers and later also nightingales to Fritz in their duet. Nightingales subsequently are also known as symbols of love with reference to spring-time and matchmaking. In her aria Suzel speaks like the violets have their own inner world: “If they [the violets] had words you would hear them whisper: we are the daughters of spring, timid and demure, we are your friends…” (“Se avessero parole le udreste mormorar: noi siamo figlie timide e pudiche di primavera, siamo le vostre amiche…”) This connection that she has with nature can be observed throughout the whole opera.

The Cherry duet

In Act II Suzel and Fritz have what is perhaps the most famous scene of the opera: the Cherry duet. Suzel is picking flowers in the garden when Fritz walks by. Suzel tells him that the cherries are finally ripe. They begin the seemingly innocent duet covered with a lot of intimate symbolism. Already long before Mascagni’s time cherries were regarded as a sexual fruit. In the Bible cherries and other fruits are, on one hand, considered a luscious gift from paradise, but on the other, can also be seen as tempting people to carnal sins. Young women picking and carrying cherry baskets were a popular motif in paintings. In literature and poetry the cherry has often symbolized female nipples and both female and male sexual organs. In 1617, Thomas Campion linked the fruit in his poem There’s a garden in her face with probably the most common symbol in present time: the virginal maiden. Furthermore, being shy, young, obedient and virtuous, Suzel’s character can be described following Emanuele Senici’s representation of the ‘alpine virgin’: “an emphatically virginal heroine, a woman defined by her virginity … often set in the mountains, most frequently in the Alps” (Senici, 2005). Although L’amico Fritz is not set in the Alps, the characterisation of Suzel refers to traditional representation of virginity in the 20th Century operas.

In the late 20th Century, the idea of picking a cherry ripe and luscious before it got brown and inedible was connected to young women and their pure virginity, in other words for men ”popping the cherry” before it got out of date. In the second part of the duet Suzel and Fritz are talking about the birds that live in the cherry tree. Fritz wonders what the birds are saying in their song and Suzel tells him she can interpret them. As well as nightingales being symbols of spring and matchmaking, birds in general are known to be symbol of freedom, and in this opera they could be a symbol of Fritz’s sworn freedom from marriage. So when Suzel knows how to communicate with the birds, maybe it also means she can communicate with Fritz better than anyone else before. The exchange of words goes as follows:

Fritz: “How well you interpret their [= the birds’] language!”
Suzel: “It seems as if they are speaking! It seems as if they are welcoming the rays of dawn with their flowers.”

(Fritz: “Come ne interpreti bene il linguaggio!”
Suzel: “Sembra che parlino! Sembra salutino coi fior il raggio dell’aurora.”)

Jewishness in the music of L’ amico Fritz

Since Jewishness is present in the libretto of L’amico Fritz in several ways, one can ask if it can be heard in music, too. In general, Masgagni’s music in this opera reflects the aesthetics of the Verismo music, which is a post-romantic wave specific to the end of the 19th Century and the early 20th Century, expressing abundant feelings, passion and realism, all while being carried by some substantial orchestral support.

It seems that Mascagni’s musical style in this opera is mostly influenced by orientalism rather than Judaism as an artistic style. Orientalism began in literature, and then expanded to a general form of art with influences coming from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Western artists found interest in idealising, even creating fantasies to take the listener on an imaginary journey into a culture they were not familiar with.

From Klezmer to Tzigan music

Even though there are orientalist features in L’amico Fritz’s music, there are some references to Judaic music, too. A secular form of music in the Judaic tradition is called Klezmer. It is an ancestral form of vocal and instrumental music, in which the most prominent instruments are clarinet, violin and flute. This form of music appeared around the 16th century to express a fervent devotion to god. Klezmer was not considered important enough to be documented at its origins’ time which is why the details of the ethnical background are vague. Klezmer typically includes dance-like rhythms, and the changing tempi of those dances allowed the performers to recover during the slower section to last long.

In L’amico Fritz this influence can be heard in the beginning of Act II where the orchestra alternates between a tempo and some rallentandi. The main melody is played by the clarinet and the flute. The wind instruments alternate with Suzel and the choir. The Flute and clarinet play the melody vertically together to prepare for the Cherry duet, creating an atmosphere of a barcarolle waltz.

Olg Lapidus, a Klezmer clarinetist, stated in an interview by the BBC Documentary that klezmer sounds like “joy with tears”. This quotation illustrates the overall feeling of happiness in sharing some time within the community to celebrate the devotion to the faith. There seems to be a constant opposition in the Judaic music aesthetics between joy and grief, which fits in harmony with the Verismo credo. This might be one of the reasons why Mascagni was attracted to this story plot.

The Carriage theme in L’amico Fritz introduced in Scene 3 of Act II right after the Cherry duet, refers to Klezmer with some rising melodies, led by either the clarinet or the trumpet with a rhythmical, almost dance-like theme. This theme comes back several times throughout the opera. Mascagni requests an incalzando intention to increase the intensity of tempo, colour and mood and alternates between the 3 / 4 and 4 / 4 time signatures, which create an atmosphere of movement for this scene.

Jewish music is rhythmical and affords a wide range of tempi whilst speeding up and slowing down – the harmony follows the melody. Klezmer musicians are considered to be playing with “fire”, since the denomination ‘Klezmer’ refers to an attitude more than a way of playing. Klezmer musicians entertain a crowd for religious events throughout the year, were it a celebration such as a wedding like in L’amico Fritz, or a bar mitzvah, or a mourning such as a funeral.

The “Otherness” inspiration in L’amico Fritz

In addition to reflections of Klezmer, some musical elements in L’amico Fritz refer to Eastern European music. These elements can be heard in supporting character Beppe’s arias. In these arias, Beppe’s phrases that are puncuated by the violin can be seen as examples of this. Mascagni’s use of the Eastern European musical elements is quite free of thoughts, as he adapted the traditional forms presented in Jewish music to the classical genre of Verismo aesthetics. The musical theme that belongs to this character represents, as mentioned above, the influence of some Klezmer Jewish music. It is in fact, Klezmer that got inspired by the Eastern music traditions such as the Gypsy one. The violins echo Beppe’s line or punctuate playfully, almost naughtily Beppe’s singing.

Gypsies, or Tzigans are a common theme in opera in general: for example Carmen (premiered in 1875), Les pêcheurs de perle (1863), I Pagliacci (1892), La Juive (1835). The origins of this ethnicity started in India – Rajasthan. The people progressively migrated through the Middle-East to Eastern Europe. They played their music to entertain the villagers of the city they were periodically establishing. The main instruments are the accordion, the violin, the clarinet, the guitar and the double bass. The Tzigan music is famous for its virtuosity and its numerous trills. Jazzmen such as Django Rehnart based their compositions around this genre.

L’amico Fritz was inspired by Jewishness but it mainly refers to the “Otherness” aesthetics. Yet, there is an underlying theme throughout the opera of Jewish custom and practices.


– The Bible
– Judaism in Opera, Isolde Schmid-Reiter & Aviel Cahn, 2017, ed. ConBrio Verlagsgesellschaft
– Haydn’s Jews – Representation and Reception on the Operatic Stage, Caryl Clark, ed. Cambridge
– A dictionary of Sexual language and Imagery in Shakespespearian and Stuart literature, Gordon Williams, ed. The athlone press

– Senici, Emanuele 2005: Landscape and Gender in Italian Opera, ed. Cambridge University Press, New York
– Exotism, Ralph P. Locke, 2001, Uniarts https://www-oxfordmusiconline-com.ezproxy.uniarts.fi/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000045644?rskey=rovhPP
– Musique Klezmer – caractéristiques https://www.universalis.fr/encyclopedie/musique-klezmer/2-caracteristiques-de-la-musique-klezmer/
– Histoire de la Musique Juive https://www.iemj.org/histoire-de-la-musique-juive
– There is a garden in her face https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43871/there-is-a-garden-in-her-face

Other online resources
– France Musique, podcast https://www.francemusique.fr/evenements/france-musique-celebre-la-musique-klezmer
– What is Klezmer, youtube reportage https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P7VOyMEw4NM
– Klezmer BBC Reportable, youtube reportage https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8oQ2fUGhyHM
– Miami Lyric Opera set to debut rare Mascagni with a rarer Jewish elements https://southfloridaclassicalreview.com/2011/03/miami-lyric-opera-set-to-debut-rare-mascagni-with-a-rarer-jewish-element/

Conversations and interview
– Conversation with a pianist working and playing in Israel about the subject Achinoam Keizer
– Conversation with a saxophonist / clarinetist jazz about Klezmer improvisation Constantin Alaïmalaïs
– Conversation with a bel canto specialist Liisa Pimiä

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