Interview with Riccardo Frizza: The great expert on Verdi

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Entrevista a Riccardo Frizza: el gran experto verdiano
Riccardo Frizza

Opera World interviewed the Italian maestro Riccardo Frizza in Bilbao last May during his rehearsals of one of the greatest operas by Giuseppe Verdi: Otello. Next August 25th, he will conduct (for the first time in his career) Verdi’s most famous and maybe the most genial work: La Traviata.

Riccardo Frizza, a real expert on the Italian lyric repertoire and particularly on Verdi’s output, possesses the qualities of the greatest conducting masters: impeccable gesture, an analytical vision that guarantees total fidelity to the original text, and a moving expression that floods all his performances with an overwhelming intensity.

A native of Brescia, a city marked by its industrial background, he inherited from his origins both rigour and precision, qualities which produce an explosive combination when mixed with his Italian soul.

In this interview we discover the keys of the musical thought of one of the most prestigious conductors in today’s opera world: Riccardo Frizza.

You came back to Spain a few weeks ago to conduct Otello by Verdi in Bilbao, obtaining a big success. Please, let us know about your relationship with this city and its opera house, where you have conducted five different operas: Don Carlo, Luisa Miller, Otello, La Sonnambula and I Capuleti e I Montecchi.

My experience at the Bilbao Opera House (ABAO) has always been very stimulating since my debut with La Sonnambula by Bellini. The stage director Federico Tiezzi participated there with a production that has been presented many times in Italy and Spain and was conceived of for the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. We had an excellent cast at this production, including the tenor Juan Diego Flórez.

I came back to Bilbao for I Capuleti e I Montecchi in the year 2007, with a good cast as well, that included Inva Mula singing Juliet and Daniela Barcelona in the role of Romeo.

Apart from these musical experiences, I really love coming back to Bilbao. I think that this city has found a way to escape from its industrial past in a spectacular way. The order in Bilbao fascinates me: Basque people are great and very efficient, something that surprises me a lot when I return.

I find that I have this perception because I grew up in Brescia, a city located in the north of Italy whose past is eminently industrial too. Maybe I feel at home in Bilbao due to this shared ambiance of both Brescia and Bilbao.

Talk us about Giuseppe Verdi, a composer remarkably important in your professional career, since you have conducted almost all of his major operas, from Oberto to Falstaff. And in just a few weeks, you will conduct for the first time in your career the masterpiece that could be considered as the most emblematic and famous one by Verdi: La Traviata.

La Traviata is the only major opera by Verdi that I have not yet conducted. I have tried to delay this moment as long as possible in my career, and the same happens with Lucia di Lammermoor. Last year, I had the feeling for the first time that it was the most appropriate moment to conduct La Traviata, and I will do this at La Fenice in Venice, the theatre it was written for. This fact is determinant for me, since I consider that the orchestration of this masterpiece is perfectly adapted to the acoustics and space of this theatre.

I must confess that Verdi transmits to me a great energy and that his work is extremely close to my personality. After having conducted a large number of belcanto works by Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, I find that it is fantastic to discover, as a conductor, what changes Verdi was capable of achieving in around thirty years. There are some fundamental steps in this evolution, like Luisa Miller, Traviata, Rigoletto and Il trovatore. For me, Luisa Miller divides Verdi’s career as a composer into two parts: the first one, clearly connected to the Risorgimento themes, and the second one, dealing with psychological themes that represent the human being in an extremely profound way.

As far as your debut with La Traviata is concerned, I would like to ask you about your opinion about the writing of this opera.

It is often said that in order to perform La Traviata it is necessary to perform with three different sopranos, one for each act, but I do not believe it at all. The problem is that we are very used to listening to extremely light sopranos singing the role of Violeta because of the tradition’s legacy.

The most adequate voice for this role must have a dramatic accent, but with real agility, and it has to be able to modulate the register from piano to mezza voce in many passages. Today, theatres unfortunately tend to choose very light sopranos in order to reinforce the spectacular coloratura passages. It is very difficult to find the balance between drama and lightness.

Violeta’s role has marked your wife’s career, the soprano Davinia Rodríguez. What could you tell us about her performance?

I firmly believe that Violeta is made for her vocal qualities. In my opinion, Davinia’s version is a real reference, undoubtedly one of her best roles.

What do you think of Maria Callas signing Violeta, maybe the most famous coloratura-dramatica voice?

It is obvious that everything that Callas sung was transformed into gold. Maria Callas was an integral artist: a real actress who possessed an overwhelming voice. In that époque it was extremely difficult to find both attributes in one soprano. But sometimes I wonder whether Maria Callas would have had the same place in today’s market. It is a question thatI cannot answer.

The audience has changed significantly over the last decades. This is the reason that I think it is fundamental to consider what performers did in a specific moment of history; otherwise our judgement could turn out to be very unfair.

If we take a retrospective promenade around the history of Italian opera from Rossini, we could trace three main styles until the XXth century: belcanto, the romantic opera by Verdi and Puccini and verismo. What does a conductor have to take into consideration when dealing with these three different styles?

What a coincidence! Yesterday I talked to Gregory Kunde, the only tenor in history who has sung Otello by Rossini and Otello by Verdi, a singer who I have known since 1999. What he told me was very interesting; he said: “I have never changed anything in my way of singing.“

I firmly believe that the way of pronouncing the text and the phrasing do not really change with the époque in the Italian school. Legato must always reign at the top of the rest of the parameters, no matter what the style is. The same think happens when a pianist plays a Nocturne by Chopin or an Adagio by Beethoven: legato is always legato. Obviously, the libretto, the theme, the accents, the emotions and other parameters will change with the époque, but the way to lead the phrasing in the Italian opera always comes from belcanto.

I would like to establish a parallelism between Nabucco and Otello from a biographical point of view: in both cases Verdi thought that his career was finished, but for radically different reasons. In the case of Nabucco, Verdi was completely ruined before starting his third opera, whereas in the case of Otello (his penultimate opera), he had already become a wealthy and famous composer in the musical would, and wanted to finish his career with his previous opera (Aida). Additionally, Nabucco and Otello have another similarity: they were both real successes. What happened between Nabucco and Otello in Verdi’s style?

I visited Verdi’s house in Santa Agata a few years ago. I was very interested in studying the correspondence between him and the editor Ricordi. Between 1880 and 1881, Verdi was in Genova looking for singers in order to again present Simone Boccanegra at La Scala, and at the same time he was writing some passages for Otello, even though he was not at all convinced about this project.

This moment of his career is extremely interesting because he wrote in his letters addressed to Ricordi that he did not want his first operas (like Nabucco) were performed in public again. I was very shocked when I read this. In my opinion, I consider that for Verdi, all the operas that preceded the maturity period that starts with Don Carlo and Aida, were mere vehicles that he used to lead the opera to a new dimension.

Verdi started his career giving the public what he wanted to have: operas based on closed numbers. From a specific moment of his production, with Aida, there are not individual arias and recitativos anymore. This complex process of building the drama continuo in opera is the lesson that Verdi traced during his entire life as a composer.

Please talk us precisely about this interesting concept of drama continuo, which is clearly present in Otello. For a conductor, is it more difficult to perform operas based on closed numbers or operas that follow the drama continuo scheme?

Sincerely, for me it is more natural and organic to perform a continuous drama. The fact of having a link that unifies every single passage and never breaks until the end helps the conductor immensely in telling a coherent story.

Might you tell us which kind of voices is suitable for envisaging the roles of Otello, Desdemona and Yago in this opera?

Sincerely, I feel totally removed from pre-fixed schemes. Today, we make a big effort to categorize the kind of tenors and sopranos for every role, but many times, this does not make any sense. Obviously, it is necessary to have a dramatic accent to sing Otello, but this accent can be put in the diction of the text without being necessarily implicit in the timbre.

Otello is a titanic role and there are tenors that have never dared to try it, like Bergonzi. Others, like Placido Domingo and Mario del Monaco, have become historic references.

Roberto Alagna is a clear example of what I said before: we can discuss for years whether or not the colour of his voice is made for singing the role of Otello, but what nobody can deny is that Roberto Alagna is transformed into Otello when he sings it.

In the end, I think that when an artist is intense and complete, we forget whether his timbre is dark or light and we concentrate mainly on the dramatic performance.

You have performed to great acclaim in the most important opera theatres in the world: Paris, Vienna, Verona, San Francisco, The Metropolitan, La Scala, etc. How is the experience to perform regularly in these great musical temples? Do you have a particular preference for one specific theatre in terms of the acoustics?

I must admit that La Scala di Milano always fascinated me. Performing Oberto there was an unforgettable experience, since this opera had not been presented there for many years. It was a crucial moment in my career that I will never forget.

Talking about the acoustics, I consider The Metropolitan to have an absolutely incredible sound: it is simply a miracle. Moreover, the space offers huge possibilities, since the stage has very big dimensions. On the other hand, I love working in the United States since orchestras are extremely professional there: the musicians never descend from a very high level and really know how to breathe with singers.

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Will you talk to us about Oberto, the opera that you debuted at La Scala?

Oberto is an opera that is usually outside the traditional repertoire. I believe that it is a marvellous first experiment in Verdi’s career. When I started to study this piece I soon realised there is a clear connection with Lucrecia Borgia’s writing: the musical structure and the vocal ideas are very similar.

It is important to notice that in that époque, Donizetti was the most well known Italian composer, and it seems evident that Verdi took his music as a reference. I consider that Donizetti sent the belcanto language farther as compared to Rossini and Bellini. Donizetti could be considered the natural link between these two geniuses and Verdi.

When I conducted Oberto at La Scala, we added a duo that was written for this theatre but that had never been performed before. In the past, la prima donna asked the composer to eliminate it since it was not made for her voice.

Opera is a very intricate domain. How does the musical conductor work with the stage director?

It can be more or less complicated, according to each occasion, since it depends a lot on the personalities of both of them. Musical conductors must know that we have an engagement with composers: we are a kind of notary, and we have to insist that everything written in the score is performed.

Very often stage directors want to formulate the operas in a different way, but this decision involves many dangers, since their version can crash into the original idea of the composer. Today, stage directors have a lot of power, since theatres engage the specific production they have presented. This means that, unfortunately, the figure of the musical conductor is sometimes dependent on the stage conductor’s ideas.

How do you feel in this point of your career?

I believe that in this moment of my career a lot of people, especially the critics, expect to find something different and special in my version, something that did not happen when I was first starting to conduct many years ago. This generates a big risk, since it is not always possible to perform music in a different way, as this would lead to the conductor contradicting the composer’s message. I think that conceiving a new musical lecture is not a sine qua non condition: fidelity is a goal in itself.

When did you discover your passion for opera?

I was born as a symphonic conductor and started opera much later. When I was a student, I did not like opera, curiously. I appreciated some pieces and knew a lot, but for me music was concentrated in the literature of all the great symphonic composers.

I started funding a symphonic orchestra in my city (Brescia), with which I performed the fundamental symphonic repertoire during the first years of my career. Opera came into my life later, but it was a great discovery, since I fell in love with it. While a student at the Chigiana Academy in Siena, I was asked to conduct an orchestra with Juan Diego Flórez as a soloist. It was my first concert accompanying arias, an exceptional first step with this tenor that permitted me to understand what opera was.

Right now, do you prefer the opera repertoire to the symphonic one?

I am fascinated by theatre in general, and this is why I love opera. I even contemplate the possibility of conducting my own stage production one day, since theatre is a real passion for me. There have been times when I have worked with very famous stage directors who appreciated my theatrical vision of the operas. This aspect could be explored one day, I would really love it.

Some of your recordings have become very famous in the international market. Do you enjoy recording?

Sincerely, I do not like listening to my own recordings. I believe that I have never listened them from beginning to end, because what I really love is making live music with intensity. It is a marvellous process, from the score to the final realization.

For me, the life of a performance ends after it sounds in public. Once that has happened, I like starting a new project. Sometimes, I even debut some operas and I avoid listening to other historical recordings. It is a way to be sure that I will manage to obtain a personal and faithful version. Previous influences can turn out to be very dangerous. This has happened to me during the last few years, when I started my career I did not think in that way.

Many people say that a crisis affects classical music in current times. We could say that opera is the most expensive field in classical music. From this perspective, how do you see the future of opera in economical terms? Should it be reformulated?

It is said that the opera audience tends to be quite old, but very often this is simply not true. Many theatres offer affordable tickets to young people and students. I often see a lot of young spectators when I conduct!

In general, tickets are expensive because today’s economy is difficult everywhere, and the opera production generates a lot of expenses. In current times, all the professionals involved in the production process must have a deserving salary, something that did not happen one century ago. Nevertheless, I believe that the system could be reformulated in order to assure affordable prices to the general public.

It is something that I cannot answer myself, I am an orchestral conductor and I do not know what could be done. Maybe the American system, based on private sponsorship, could be the key to success.

There is a quote from Einstein published on your website: “Art is the expression of the most profound thought in the simplest way”. Why did you choose it? What is scientific in a conductor?

The work of the orchestral conductor is based on communication. When it is brief, clear and immediate, everything is much simpler. However, when it is vague and excessive, it can turn out to be incomprehensible.

You have known all the stages of a conductor’s career, from the very beginning on through reaching the first circuit in the opera world. What is the secret that a young conductor should take into consideration to build a career in such a complicated and competitive profession?

It is very difficult to answer this question. I could answer with a metaphor: it is like a climber. It is important to continue climbing all the time, but if we make a unique mistake, we fall.

I firmly believe that a good artist or a good musician who has many things to say never fails in his/her career. It is possible that opportunities come late, but real artists will be discovered one day.

Franco Ferrara said that many people aspired to become a conductor because they felt attracted to the feeling of power and potency that can be found in this discipline. Nevertheless, if one does not have anything to transmit, it is impossible to conduct. Musical instinct, talent and musicality are fundamental for conductors.

What do you feel when you conduct?

It really depends on the situation. When one conductor performs an opera, every night is different, much more than a symphonic concert. There are some miraculous nights in which everything works in an organic way: the story flows perfectly from the beginning until the end. Other nights, the technical aspect of the voices does not allow this magical concentration to appear. These miracles only happen a few times in life: I remember once at the Metropolitan when I really felt that there was a kind of magnetic symbiosis between all the performers. Sonya Yoncheva was amongst them.

It is quite uncommon that a conductor of your age has reached the first circuit in the opera world. What do you ask for the future in your profession?

I hope to continue making music with honesty and with my entire soul. I am very happy with my professional path thus far, and I would like to continue learning. I believe that I have changed a lot technically and musically and I hope to continue making it, but enjoying life with music and living for music.

Félix Ardanaz