“This pandemic has given us the courage to take different decisions.” Riccardo Frizza, Music Director of the Donizetti Festival in Bergamo, describes the unusual performance geography for its 2020 edition last November – orchestra pitched over the proscenium, chorus on stage, principal singers in the platea. Due to the November lockdown in Italy, no audience was permitted, but the festival had already decided to stream their events and went ahead in an online format, a proud gesture of defiance. “It was important,” Frizza declares, “to give a signal that it’s still possible to stage opera and to do it well.”

Riccardo Frizza in the empty Teatro Donizetti
© Gianfranco Rota

Bergamo was at the epicentre of the first European outbreak of Covid-19 last February, suffering a crippling death toll. In June, Frizza conducted Donizetti’s Requiem, a homage to the city’s victims performed in the presence of the Italian president, Sergio Matarella. “Before you could start to think about putting on opera again,” he explains, “you had to do something for the city, out of respect for the people who died. After the tragedy in Bergamo and Brescia – my home city – it was impossible to think of any entertainment activity or cultural event.” The Requiem was performed in front of Bergamo's cemetery, “the same place the world’s television cameras were focused on in March with these images of the cars and military trucks taking away the coffins. It was very important to show the city starting up again.” 

The Donizetti Festival opened with a production of a rarity, Marino Faliero, staged on an Escher-like framework of steps and walkways in the stalls. What coordination problems did that bring for the conductor? “It was honestly not complicated. The set was designed to have audiences watching from the boxes. I split the orchestra in two, with the woodwinds behind me and the strings in front, reducing the distance between us and the singers. In fact, they were not much further away than if they were on stage in a normal production.”

The set for Marino Faliero in the Teatro Donizetti
© Gianfranco Rota

He explains how they actually had prior experience of these conditions. “During the 2019 festival, the theatre was still undergoing renovations so we did L’Ange de Nisida ‘in the round’ where we put the orchestra in one part of the audience, and we put the real audience on the stage! So it wasn’t difficult for us in Bergamo to decide to do Marino Faliero in the same situation. The fact that the pandemic is not easy to manage means you have to find solutions. You can push further, try to do something different.

“Casting the opera wasn’t without its difficulties. “We were supposed to have Javier Camarena, but he had to cancel, so Michele Angelini came in from the United States. He was superbly prepared and in good shape to sing, but unfortunately he got sick two days before opening night [not Covid-related], so we were without a tenor! I am very grateful to him for going on, because he saved our show – it was broadcast live and without a tenor it would have been impossible. He took some medicine, went on stage and did what he could. It was a demonstration of how we in Bergamo wanted to fight for this festival.”  

Frizza is a bel canto specialist and his Bergamo musicians love to play Donizetti, their hometown composer. “They understand what an important composer he is, maybe more than other orchestras abroad. After every rehearsal of Marino Faliero, they were amazed at how beautiful the music was, how energetic, how Donizetti was able to build the drama very high at the end of every act. The finale of the third act, with this tiny duet that has the two voices disappearing, this is very modern. People would say the same about the duet at the end of Aida with the two voices in the tomb, but that was 1871. This was 1835!

“The reason we have to continue with this festival is to let the public know how important he was for the Italian repertoire. Although everyone knows Don Pasquale and L’elisir d’amore, we forget too much the importance of Donizetti – the serious Donizetti. 

In 2018, Frizza conducted Bellini’s Il pirata at La Scala. Is this another bel canto opera coming back into fashion? “It needs great singers. If you think back to Norma,” Frizza argues, “before Callas, Norma was not in the repertory. It takes great singers to make you realise the importance of these operas. It’s not about how good is the music, but how good is the drama, because this is theatre. There are not so many artists who sing Pirata – it’s extreme, not just for the soprano but also for the tenor. When it was done at La Scala in 1958 with Callas and Corelli, there were a lot of cuts – the coloratura, the uncomfortable vocal parts – this is a tenor leggero role and Corelli wasn’t for one minute a leggero! Being cut to shreds really gave a bad perception of this music. You discover a new opera if you give the complete score.

Riccardo Frizza conducts at the 2020 Donizetti Opera Festival
© Gianfranco Rota

“Opera Rara is doing a great job – and it’s important to leave a testimony on CD – but it’s also important to perform these operas, because if you don’t put them on the stage, you don't understand the greatness of this music. And this is the focus of our festival, to show the greatness of the drama.”

Although the festival is renowned for programming rare Donizetti operas, Frizza now wants to explore the most famous repertoire, like Lucia di Lammermoor, but on period instruments. “It’s been done for Baroque, it’s been done for Mozart, for Rossini but nobody’s done it for the other operas of the early 19th century. It is very important to play Donizetti on original instruments because if you consider from his operatic debut (1818) to his last operas (1843-44), the development of the orchestra was huge. There was a great development in orchestration too, so we would like to use the original instruments of the period to try and understand Donizetti’s orchestrations. It is very complicated with modern instruments to do exactly what he wants; sometimes, if you ask the horns to play loud it sounds like Mahler and not Donizetti!” 

Frizza recognises that, especially in terms of productions, Italy – the birthplace of opera – has lagged behind other countries. “We’re very conservative when it comes to opera, so maybe we didn’t develop so much in the last 35 years in terms of modern productions. I think we lost a lot of ground. The world is no longer looking to Italy any more. But Italy has to look abroad to see what has happened.

Riccardo Frizza

“But what I’m sure is Italy still has something to say in terms of interpretation, in terms of vocal interpretation.” And here Frizza turns his ire towards us music critics. “When you listen to Faust or some other French opera, you complain about French that is not very well pronounced, but nobody complains when someone sings something in Italian that nobody can understand. This is something that makes me really angry. There is no respect for the language – this is very important to me – the same respect we have for German and for French repertoire, we should also expect for Italian. There are very few non-Italians who can sing perfect Italian. There are some who, for me, are impossible to listen to. So we still have something to teach the world about Italian opera.” 

But outside of the bel canto sphere, where, I wonder, are the great Italian singers? “We do have voices… maybe they work more in Italy than have big international careers, but we are not the focus, the reference point any more,” he admits. “We also don’t have the facility to go abroad on tours. There are so many tours of Russians, like Gergiev coming with the Mariinsky, and you discover great voices because I think the most important school of voices at the moment is in Russia. So we’re fighting but it is not easy.”

Riccardo Frizza rehearses at the Liceu, Barcelona

When we talk, Frizza is in Florence, rehearsing a new production of Rigoletto at the Maggio Musicale. Alas, there are still no audiences permitted, but Davide Livermore’s staging has been filmed and will be streamed later this month. But Frizza has – finally – experienced conducting for a real, live audience again recently. In February, he was at the Liceu, Barcelona, for The Tales of Hoffmann. What was that like as an experience? 

“I tell you the truth,” he confides. “When we did the general rehearsal of Hoffmann, the first time with an audience, Ermonela Jaho and me, we started crying after the opera, really crying, like babies, because there had been something missing. Doing opera live-streamed but without an audience is not the same. You cannot really feel the pressure. This pressure of the audience being there is so important. They make you do your best.”