At age 14, Riccardo Frizza decided he wanted nothing to do with opera.
The catalyst? Bellini’s “I Puritani.”
“I was studying in the conservatory and they took us to see ‘I Puritani,’” the famed conductor told OperaWire in an exclusive interview. “I thought it was so boring. It was a mistake to take me to see that first before any other opera because for years I refused to know anything about the art form.”
Loving That Which He Rejected
On Saturday Jan. 28, 2017, now in his 40’s, Frizza will take his place at the podium of the Lyric Opera of Chicago to conduct his third run of “Norma,” the most famous work by the very composer he repudiated decades before.
While he has only taken on two operas by the Italian composer, his admiration for “Norma” and Bellini’s dramatic sensibilities is without equal.
“Bellini’s work is basing his dramatic writing on melody and explores the text even more acutely than any of the composers before him,” Frizza elaborated. “He did however have the capability to try out different structural norms like Donizetti did.
“For example, that first finale of Norma is a gem for me because it goes from a duet to a trio. It was something new at the time.”
He also finds a tremendous amount of joy in examining Bellini’s orchestral choices, though many would look at them as barebones and rather simple in style.
“In sections where the orchestra is quite reduced to lend space for the recitativo or declamation, I have learned that the few orchestral commentaries become more pronounced and essential,” the Italian conductor related. “The color and length of the chords is crucial for highlighting the psychological or emotional aspects of the moment. Most people just look at these chords from a harmonic standpoint as a means to accompany the singers, but I think it is important to really look at how they color the drama in such efficient ways that only Bellini knew how to do.”
His journey with “Norma” began in 2013 at the Metropolitan Opera House alongside Sondra Radvanovsky, who was also performing her first staged run of the acclaimed role. Both garnered tremendous reviews for their work together with Radvanovsky suddenly becoming the most sought-after interpreter of the heroine in the world.
Frizza notes that working with Radvanovsky is always a treat because she is a “fully committed and a serious artist. She is so dedicated to being the best and discovering new ideas. She is always looking to dig deeper and deeper. It is an honor to work with her,” he explained before heaping praise on her instrument. “She has such a wonderful technique that allows her to do whatever she pleases. And a massive voice. When she opens up, it’s a canon.”
The New World in the Native One
So how did Frizza go from despising opera to making it his whole life?
As with any affection, it was a gradual process. Almost 10 years after rejecting “Puritani” the conductor started his change of heart when he embarked on a series of concerts with tenor Juan Diego Flórez.
But the discovery of the “new world of opera” really came about thanks to Rossini and his “Cenerentola.” He was particularly excited by the composer’s ability to transition from one emotional extreme to the other without any discernible difficulty.
“I discovered that a great composer like Rossini was capable of making the more entertaining moments with bubbling music that was like champagne,” he explained. “And then I saw how he transitioned to more languid and serious moments with such ease and delicacy. And while for me orchestral music is always creating an image and idea, putting it on the stage in opera is the highest form of art.”
Being an Italian native, Frizza has taken very well to the Italian repertoire, conducting 44 operas by Italian composers throughout his career, including nine by Rossini, nine by Donizetti and over a dozen by Verdi. He has claimed that he hopes to conduct every Verdi opera by the time his career ends and has been a been an advocate for Donizetti, taking on all of the composer’s major landmarks.
For him, Italian opera is arguably the most influential, going so far as to note its impact on some of the German composers.
“I once heard Beethoven’s ‘Fidelio’ live and I realized how much Rossini was in that work, even if people don’t want to see it,” he explained it. “Even though the world was so disconnected back then, these composers had the ability to reach such a wide range of cultures. And then to see those cultures take their work and transform it. That’s nature.”
Another composer that he links with the Italian tradition is one that was rather outspoken about its structural norms and attitude toward drama – Richard Wagner.
“It’s interesting, but Wagner was always very understanding of what made Italian opera so great,” Frizza remarked. “All Wagner operas are very Italian. ‘Lohengrin’ is even more Italian than [Donizetti’s] ‘La Fille du Regiment’ for example. It is true that he created his own aesthetic, but he didn’t completely escape from the Italian influences in opera. In fact, no one could. If you take the opening of Bellini’s ‘Norma,’ the first five notes after the introduction and play them out backwards, you find the entire passage in Brahms’ first symphony.”
Seeing Through the Eyes of the Composer
Being a conductor of opera is no easy endeavor. Conductors are generally taking on multiple operas a year, both new and old ones. They have to learn to work with a wide range of different personalities in ever-changing environments, many over which he has no control.
This places greater emphasis on Frizza to be in top form at all times, especially when taking on new operas or revisiting such major staples as “Norma.”
Frizza has a background in composition and while music is essential for him, his approach to learning or revisiting ones never starts with the notes on the page.
“I do the process of the composer writing the opera for the first time. I study the libretto,” the Italian conductor revealed. “Until I completely understand the libretto, I cannot take control of the score because I firmly believe that whatever has inspired the music is in the text. To understand why the composer put a specific note or orchestral color or structure, you have to understand the why. And the why is always in the dramatic situations of the text.
“The same goes in orchestral music. How do you conduct Strauss’ ‘Don Quixote’ without understanding Cervantes? You can read the music, but you can’t internalize it. You can’t truly understand it.”
So how long does he take to internalize the libretto?
“I never stop. It’s the same as the music. Every time I retake an opera, I start to realize that a comma or question mark can make a huge difference and you completely missed it the first time,” he explained before launching into a common misconception often staged in “Norma.”
During the famed trio, Adalgisa turns to Pollione upon learning of his deception and utters “Taci! T’arretri!”
“Everyone always stages it as if Adalgisa was asking two questions to Polione. That interpretation would have us believe that he refuses to talk to her and that he prefers to leave,” he explained. “But in the libretto there are exclamation marks! So she is actually telling him to shut up and leave! She’s the one driving the action, not him. The one punctuation on three words changes the entire meaning of the drama and the characters. Adalgisa doesn’t want answers. She knows what’s going on. And that is what makes Bellini so great! Women know well before the men. Changing that meaning undermines one of his great themes.”
Once he has a grasp on the text, Frizza launches into the score, but unlike many other conductors he doesn’t listen to any recordings of the works he is learning.
“For the last 10 years, I don’t listen to any other recording except my own. It’s a challenge I set for myself,” he noted. “I want to take my own journey through this repertoire. I have no idea where it might lead me and what I might leave behind, but I want to see how it goes. I have explored repertoire that doesn’t have any recorded legacy and I have found that it is more interesting. I feel as if I am creating for the first time without other ideas or sounds influencing me. “
But that creation does come with its own challenges as his navigation of the score becomes even more challenging without other influence to turn to. First off, Frizza notes that different eras create different problems for the interpreter.
“The further back you go, the more complicated it gets because the composers were less precise in some ways. If you open a Rossini score, you get less information than you would in a Puccini score. Puccini writes in every dynamic, tempo change and fermata,” the conductor related. “All you have to do is follow him and his music comes to life on its own. In a Rossini score the tempo changes are non-existent. You must internalize them and figure out when they are best employed. You have to have more discretion with how you approach the music.”
When rehearsals finally come to fruition, balance often forces the conductor to re-evaluate the score itself.
“Sometimes with Donizetti, you have to pull the instruments back a bit because the horns of Donizetti’s time were less potent than those today,” he noted before explaining that aesthetics also play a role. “Moreover, the modern audience does not really like the orchestral color of the Italian opera of that time. They don’t like hearing too many winds and brass, which is more of a modern sensibility. It sounds too much like a ‘banda’ for them. When you see something that says tutta forza, you often have to play it pianissimo to avoid that effect. So I have to find a better way to mold it and give it a roundness.”
In opera, the conductor must maintain a stringent collaboration with the orchestra, as opposed to the symphonic conductor who is able to give free reign to his imagination. This relationship that Frizza must navigate in the opera house often calls for a “calculated and cool brain, which keeps you somewhat at a distance from giving in completely to the music.”
“You are mentally focused on what is going on onstage,” he stated before noting that there is but one opera where he is able to work more as a symphonic conductor. “This doesn’t exist for me in [Verdi’s] ‘Otello.’ I am in my own world and I just follow my own line. I am so emotionally invested that nothing can take me off this path. It’s the only opera where that happens for me.
“It’s like conducting a Mahler Symphony. You are completely wrapped in the musical world. For me ‘Otello’ is THE opera.”
(Have a listen of Frizza’s performance of “Otello” below)