A score of such profound beauty that as vitriolic a critic of Italian opera as Richard Wagner extolled its virtues, Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma has in its 185-year history come to epitomize bel canto in the hearts and minds of many opera lovers. First performed at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala on 26 December 1831, by a cast that included Giuditta Pasta in the title rôle, Giulia Grisi as Adalgisa, Domenico Donzelli as Pollione, and Vincenzo Negrini as Oroveso, Norma was celebrated almost immediately as Bellini’s magnum opus, a distinction made all the more apparent by the musical and dramatic miracles wrought by the singers to whom the opera’s creation was entrusted. Considering that he famously remarked that the success of a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore depends upon as minor a thing as the engagement of the world’s four greatest singers, how might Enrico Caruso have assessed Norma’s demands? As evidenced by performances featuring an array of Normas of varying technical and histrionic abilities, ranging from Maria Malibran to Maria Callas and from Ángela Peralta to Angela Meade, a Norma with a wholly-qualified exponent of its eponymous heroine at its core can be one of opera’s most memorable experiences. A Norma with an ill-suited or ill-prepared Druidess, on the other hand, cannot be forgotten quickly enough. The ferocity of the title rôle’s demands notwithstanding, the part in Norma that is too easily overlooked when performed well but is impossible to ignore when poorly done is that of the conductor. Rarely is the presence on the podium the prime attraction of a performance of Norma, but Lyric Opera of Chicago’s January – February 2017 presentation of Kevin Newbury’s production of Bellini’s bel canto juggernaut will offer audiences what they now so seldom encounter: a conductor with the interpretive and musical skills necessary to bridge the divide between the people on the stage and those in the seats. Débuting with the company with this Herculean labor, Italian conductor Riccardo Frizza brings to the Windy City an acquaintance with Italian repertory that might justifiably be characterized as one of today’s most productive love affairs.
Born in Brescia in Italy’s Lombardia region, where he assumes a place in a centuries-old musical legacy including one of the world’s most influential schools of violin making and the eminent pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Frizza has in the course of the fifteen years since his professional début in a Pesaro performance of Rossini’s Stabat mater restored to performances of Italian repertory in many of the world’s important theatres aspects of authentic Italianate style lacking since the età d’oro of Arturo Toscanini, Victor de Sabata, and Tullio Serafin. Surprisingly for someone so comfortable in the topsy-turvy world of opera, Frizza’s earliest musical encounters were not with the great divas of his youth, and he maintains that unmistakable comfort by observing the vital difference between being a servant to music and a slave to the demands of an international career. ‘When I go on holiday, I don’t want to hear music,’ he offers. ‘If it’s obligatory to take an iPod to a desert island, I would load it with music of rock bands from the 1980s and ’90s, which is the music I grew up with.’ Recalling the example of Callas, whose intensity on stage was reportedly offset by a fondness for television cartoons when she was away from the stage, Frizza is cognizant of the necessity of balancing industry with repose. ‘I need to rest my brain,’ he imparts. This is one of the important lessons that he has learned from the progress of his career, about which he is characteristically circumspect, as candid about failures as about successes. ‘If I could go back, I would try not to make some of the mistakes I made,’ he muses. ‘The experience I gained by myself. I started young and never worked with a great conductor. Having not had that chance, I precluded the opportunity to make myself known when I was very young. In today’s media market, to start now, at thirty-five you’re old!’ Now only in his mid-forties, Frizza exudes healthful, youthful energy both in conversation and in performance, an artist in his prime who possesses a great conductor’s interpretive sagacity and a rock star’s easy charisma.
Launching a tenure at New York’s Metropolitan Opera that has to date encompassed sixty-eight outings in operas by Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, and Puccini, Frizza first bowed at the MET in a 2009 performance of Rigoletto. His focus at the MET on these cornerstones of the Italian repertory has both sharpened his attention to details of familiar scores that are overlooked in many performances and intensified his appreciation for the defining lifeblood of Italian opera. The masterworks of Italian opera constitute their own sort of alternate universe, Frizza suggests; one that enthralls opera lovers not with artificial relevance but with its liberating implausibility. What happens in opera stays in opera, one might say, but are there situations in the operas that he conducts that Frizza might strive to convince the composers to alter to better suit modern sensibilities? ‘If someone suggested that I try to get a composer to change something—I am just an interpreter!’ he exclaims without hesitation. ‘I have the background and information I need from the composer himself or herself. We must always think about the historical periods in which these works were written and the value they had at those times,’ he says. This, he asserts, is critical not merely to the enjoyment but also to the survival of opera in and beyond the Twenty-First Century. ‘If [these values are not considered],’ he adds, ‘all the works of the Italian melodrama would never be performed. Who would believe today that we can avenge a lover’s betrayal? It is far-fetched.’ How, then, does opera forge a path forward that balances respect for composers’ intentions with contemporary social trends and the prospective expectations of future audiences? Returning to his commitment to upholding the sanctity of composers’ and librettists’ endeavors, past, present, and future, Frizza states, ‘To a lesser degree, it is appropriate not to change something that was perfect in the era in which it was composed but to write new works.’ The dramatic struggles of Norma and Rigoletto are precisely as Romani, Bellini, Piave, and Verdi meant them to be. Today’s attitudes belong in scores written to express them, Frizza philosophizes, not in the distinctive milieux of works of past generations.
Stage creature in his natural habitat: Italian conductor Riccardo Frizza, débuting at Lyric Opera of Chicago in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma on 28 January 2017, conducting at the 2013 Richard Tucker Gala [Photo © by Dario Acosta]
Among Frizza’s sixty-eight appearances at The MET are acclaimed performances of Rossini’s Armida, Bellini’s Norma, and Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, joining lauded productions of other bel canto scores that the conductor has paced throughout Europe and with San Francisco Opera. If not a conscious specialization, Frizza’s mastery of this repertory has garnered recognition of his unaffectedly stylish handling of bel canto—recognition that, as Frizza is eloquent in conveying, begets enormous responsibility. ‘Performing and interpreting the bel canto style is a challenge,’ he confides, ‘because it requires special care and, above all, a musical vision of the writing from the point of view of the voice.’ This seems obvious, especially in the analysis of an idiom that can be translated as ‘beautiful singing,’ but Frizza is uncommonly sensitive to the abuses that bel canto has suffered as the principal focus of opera has deviated from voices. ‘The writing cannot be separated from the vocal quality and technique of the interpreter,’ he insists. ‘Basically, it’s like we wanted to play a Chopin piano concerto, ignoring the characteristics, attitudes, and tendencies of the pianist. In bel canto, the same thing happens.’ How, then, does he pursue his goal of remedying the distortion to which bel canto has been subjected in recent years? ‘What I like to emphasize in my performances of bel canto operas,’ the spirited Maestro shares, ‘is the chance to not betray the spirit and the will of the composer, while using the “peculiarities” of each individual voice with which I am working.’ Without pause, he concedes that this is anything but an easy task. ‘It’s a very difficult challenge, but I don’t think there can only be one interpretation for bel canto works, as well as for opera in general. To the contrary, each piece is transformed by the same element that makes it alive: the voice!’
Though twenty years have passed since Bellini’s Norma was last heard at Lyric Opera of Chicago, with June Anderson in the title rôle, the company’s relationship with the score began in LOC’s inaugural season, when the formidable quartet of Maria Callas, Giulietta Simionato, Mirto Picchi, and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni treated Chicagoland to two performances of Norma in November 1954. Frizza perceives the significance of this history more clearly that anyone. ‘Performing Norma is difficult for all the interpreters: singers, conductor, and director,’ he says. ‘From my perspective, the greatest difficulty is to tell the story with a lot of tension, without ever letting it falter, supported by the slow moments and elasticity of Bellini’s writing.’ With these ‘slow moments’ in mind, are there ways in which Frizza feels that Norma could be improved? ‘Honestly, I wouldn’t change anything in either the libretto or plot,’ he responds, echoing his thoughts on efforts to ‘modernize’ works of the past. ‘I think that the central theme of the finale is well demonstrated by the protagonist by making us reflect on the rôle of a mother and her bond with her children.’ How does Adalgisa fit into this stratagem, Romani and Bellini having omitted her from the opera’s penultimate and final scenes and denied her tribulations resolution? ‘Adalgisa actually serves to help us get to this,’ Frizza proposes. ‘She is just a means to help the story evolve: she is not central but only functional.’
The title rôle in Norma is altogether another matter, however. In his career, Frizza has worked with several of today’s most celebrated Normas, each of whom brings unique qualities to her interpretation. In Frizza’s view, the act of singing Norma initiates a singer into a sorority that is rightly respected, the rôle being easy, as Zinka Milanov quipped, only if sung badly. ‘All Normas become legendary when they die or when they stop singing,’ the Maestro surmises, but he quickly augments this with a more nuanced assessment. ‘Well, I think that after Maria Callas there have not been many other legendary Normas—excellent, yes, and great, as well, but not legendary. I wish that I could have been able to work with La Divina, more to learn some secrets of her art than for me to give her something. It is obvious that when two artists collaborate, there’s always a synthesis of different ideas that merge when each brings something and then receives something in return.’ While elevating performances of Norma to the greatest heights of lyric tragedy, this exchange of ideas can make the opera difficult going for the novice. ‘I would say that Norma is not the work I would propose as a first opera,’ Frizza confesses, ‘but I’d try to make [a first-time operagoer] understand how music and poetry together are the tools to express the highest and deepest feelings.’ Frizza’s performances confirm that he is among the very small number of conductors, of whom there are likely no fewer now in previous generations, who is capable of making a listener’s first or fiftieth Norma an unforgettably moving experience.
From Brescia, con amore: Italian conductor Riccardo Frizza, débuting at Lyric Opera of Chicago in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma on 28 January 2017
[Photo © by Merri Cyr]
Looking beyond Norma, Frizza’s advocacy for bel canto repertory has done much to rejuvenate the spirit of the renaissance spurred by Callas, Sutherland, Gencer, Sills, and Caballé. Leading performances of Donizetti’s still-too-seldom-performed Linda di Chamounix in Rome in 2016, Frizza verified to audiences that Donizetti at his best equaled Verdi as a dramatist. Asked about the progress and the work still to be done in advancing the cause of bel canto, Frizza summarizes, ‘I believe that in bel canto there has been a tremendous resurgence of study and rediscovery. There are some composers who have not yet become known or totally understood. I think that Donizetti is a composer who today is unfortunately too misunderstood and poorly exhibited in productions. Rossini, on the other hand, has done very well.’ The mistreatment of Donizetti in no way results from any deficiency on the composer’s part, this devoted exponent of his work argues. ‘I think that [Donizetti] is brilliant,’ Frizza asserts, ‘and I’m sure that in the next few years, with the help of the Fondazione Donizetti and the Festival Internazionale Donizetti Opera di Bergamo, we will get to know him.’ There is no doubt that Riccardo Frizza’s help will also contribute invaluably to that acquaintance.
Leonard Bernstein said that ‘technique is communication: the two words are synonymous in conductors.’ This is true in the literal sense that a conductor’s gestures communicate to the musicians under his guidance the course that their efforts are to take. Less tangible but no less meaningful is the conductor’s rôle as the bridge over which composers’ ideas cross into audiences’ collective consciences. That he describes the essence of his artistry as a ‘burst of energy’ that electrifies a performance ‘without overpowering the voices’ indicates the prodigious gifts of technique and communication that Riccardo Frizza brings to his work. Virtually every music lover has his own definition of a great conductor, but Bernstein’s wisdom is as solid a foundation as any: a conductor in whose work technique and communication are synonymous has the potential to achieve greatness. Rather than grabbing at greatness by attempting to reconfigure masterpieces of Italian opera to conform with today’s tastes, this son of Brescia earns greatness by reminding audiences of composers’ tastes. In a field too often mired in egotism and elitism, Riccardo Frizza is a Rooseveltian conductor who walks softly but wields a baton with big impact.
Norma’s leading man: Italian conductor Riccardo Frizza, débuting at Lyric Opera of Chicago in Vincenzo Bellini's Norma on 28 January 2017
[Photo © by J. Henry Fair]
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Bellini’s Norma featuring Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma, Elizabeth DeShong as Adalgisa, Russell Thomas as Pollione, and Andrea Silvestrelli as Oroveso opens on Saturday, 28 January 2017, and repeats on 1, 5, 9, 13, 18, and 24 February. To purchase tickets, please visit LOC’s website.
Sincerest thanks are extended to Maestro Frizza for his engaging, intelligent responses and to Karen Kriendler Nelson of KKN Enterprises for liaising with Maestro Frizza and translating his responses for this article.