Q & A: Conductor Riccardo Frizza On the Transformation of the Donizetti Opera Festival

By Francisco Salazar
(Credit: © Joan Tomás – Fidelio Artist)

In 2019 the Donizetti Opera Festival celebrated its fifth anniversary after winning the prestigious Best Festival at the Oper! Magazine Awards. The festival showcased three works by the famed composer that brought an international audience and a number of rising stars and international singers.

It was also the second year for famed conductor Riccardo Frizza, who took over as the Donizetti Opera Festival’s music director and led the 2019 production of “Lucrezia Borgia,” his second work with the organization.

Frizza who, has become recognized for his work with the Bel Canto repertoire, spoke to OperaWire about the festival, casting young singers, and his upcoming plans for the 2020 edition of the festival.

OperaWire: The Donizetti Opera Festival has grown since last year and there is so much more visibility for it. Can you tell me what changes you have seen since you became Music Director of the Festival?

Riccardo Frizza: This is my second year as the music director of the festival and next year will be the year that a lot of my ideas will be seen. But I think Francesco Micheli has done a great job with these first years.

Festivals need time to get well-known and I think this year has been very important for the festival, even though the Teatro Donizetti was under construction. The interest for the festival has grown and we have also gotten the attention of the international press, which is very important. As a matter of fact we saw a 48 percent increase in interest from last year. We are still in a process of growth and we will need a few more years to see the evolution.

OW: Bergamo is a very small and intimate city which wouldn’t be the first tourist stop. However, looking around the shops, restaurants and hotels, everyone seems to be a part of the festival. How has the city helped in the festival?

RF: Bergamo is an industrial city and is very historical but people in this city did not know who Donizetti was. They knew the name because of the theater but they did not know that Donizetti is the most famous person from Bergamo.

So the first thing Francesco did when he started the festival was to make sure everyone knew who Donizetti was. So he invented Donizetti Night which got over 70,000 to 80,000 people. So the city has finally realized who Donizetti is. This was the start of a project and now that we have been able to do that, we want to position ourselves at an international level like the Puccini Festival, Rossini Opera Festival, and Verdi Festival.

OW: Donizetti wrote numerous operas and the festival has already explored a lot of unknown works. What is the goal regarding the repertory?

RF: Our goal is to do something very well and that we continue working with musicologists to find a style for the festival. It will not always have to be the critical edition but we want to find a voice.

One of the things we’re working right now is with voice type. Donizetti wrote for such a range of voice types that we are trying to identify what the real voice types were. For example “Lucia di Lammermoor” has been sung by so many voices. You have seen the opera sung by leggero voices, lirico-leggero voices, and lyric voices. And if you actually look at what is written it could easily be sung by a spinto soprano or a dramtico de agilita. So you have to explore and study and this takes a lot of time.

In Pesaro they have worked with Rossini for 40 years and because of this work, we can see operas like “Armida” which I did at the Metropolitan Opera and it was the first time it was being done. It’s no longer just “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” but operas like “La Donna del Lago” and “Semiramide” that are being done more often. It is due to the festival, which has expanded the knowledge of Rossini’s works.

With Donizetti there is a lot of work to do because he wrote 75 works.

OW: This season the festival showcased a number of rising stars and some established singers. Tell me about the casting process that goes into it?

RF: This is a job that Francesco and I have to work on together. Since I have worked on an international level and have worked with this repertoire for the last few years, I have been able to work with a number of important singers. As a result, I have been able to get a number of international figures and some that will work with us in the next few years. Francesco has a lot of the staging ideas and the rest we do together.

Before I choose the soprano I always look at the score and see what voice type is correct and how to combine the various voices that are involved. That is my job, but we make the decisions together.

But we are also interested in promoting some artists because we want them to grow in our festival. For example we want Xabier Anduaga to grow here and be the place where he gets known. He did “Il Castello di Kenilworth” in 2018 and this year he did Gennaro in “Lucrezia Borgia.”

OW: One of the biggest discoveries of the year was Lidia Fridman who sang “L’Ange de Nisida.” Tell me about this discovery and how you came across this new talent?

RF: Originally Salome Jicia was set to star in the opera but her doctors advised her to bow out because she was on her sixth month of pregnancy. Lidia Fridman studied at the Martina Franca academia, which is a festival I know very well and this season she sang a performance of “Ecuba.” When we had no soprano, I tried to see what kind of voice she had. Since it is an opera that nobody knows and one that no one sings, we needed a soprano that had time to learn and explore the work.

I heard a recording from Martina Franca and I thought her voice was perfect for the role and I knew that she would fit the work. So Francesco and I took a risk. She is very young but her voice is fantastic and for her age she is a wonderful artist.

OW: “L’Ange de Nisida” was presented in a very interesting manor. Tell me about the decision to perform it in the Cantiere of the theater?

RF: We knew we wanted to do it because we wanted to be the first to do it on stage. We didn’t do the world premiere because it was already done in London in concert. So we changed the original opera we had planned so we could do “L’Ange de Nisida.”

When we discovered that the Teatro Donizetti would not be ready for the festival, the mayor said we had to do something anyways so we found a way to do it. We put the audience around and found a great solution which was magical. Francesco did a great job even with all the difficulties we faced. During rehearsal we did not have heat and of course the theater was still under construction so there was a lot of dust. But this is a city that does something when they want something.

OW: Presenting a new work is never easy. What did you find the reaction was overall and where would you like to see this work in the future?

RF: The reaction to this year’s productions was incredible and we received so much applause. For “L’Ange de Nisida” we were witnesses to something very important and although the music is already known, this opera works in many ways better than “La Favorite.”

The dramatic line is very complicated because of the buffo role which is odd and to find a balance is something never seen in any opera. It’s a revelation and it’s an opera that has to be part of the repertoire. It works even better than “Il Trovatore” which dramatically does not make sense but we do it because of the amazing music.

In this work we have amazing music and we hope that many theaters do it very soon.

OW: So much talk surrounded “Lucrezia Borgia” this season as it was a new critical edition. Tell us about the exploration and finding this Parisian version which you performed?

RF: The Parisian version has a number of changes including an aria for Gennaro in the second act. It’s the first time we did it with the original Donizetti orchestration.

The second change was the cabaletta between Il Duca and Lucrezia because the one he wrote for Paris has greater force. And the finale of the opera was also different. In the Paris version the “Era desso” is not repeated. This is something that Donizetti wanted and it may sound weird at first but it adds urgency without doing a big rondo or cabaletta. It was all about being more coherent dramatically.

OW: Tell us about next year and what plans you have?

RF: We have announced two operas and if all goes according to plan we will do four operas. We will do three staged works and one in concert.

We will also do “La Fille du Regiment” in a new critical edition and will also continue to do our Donizetti 200 series. This is a mission we will continue as the scientific festival that we are and it is actually important because audiences will get to see the evolution of the composer. You see his ideas at the start and how they eventually become what we all know.


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