Alessandro Manzoni died in Milan on 22 May 1873, 150 years ago.
The Milanese poet, novelist and philosopher is famous for his novel I promessi sposi (The Betrothed, 1827), which is full of patriotic messages for the Italian Risorgimento, the unification of Italy, which saw the different states of the Italian Peninsula become the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. With his writing, Manzoni helped to develop a modern, unified Italian language, used throughout the new state.
He died when he was 88, and his funeral, fit for a King, was celebrated in Milan's Duomo. He was buried in the Famedio (the ‘Temple of Fame') at the Cimitero Monumentale (in 2021, the tomb of the ballerina Carla Fracci was placed next to his – the only woman among six men). On the first anniversary of the writer's death, on 22 May 1874, Giuseppe Verdi conducted the premiere of his Requiem, dedicated to Manzoni (for a time it was known as the Manzoni Requiem), in Milan's St Mark's church.
On Monday 22 May 2023, Verdi's Requiem will be performed in the Duomo, conducted by Riccardo Frizza, with Milan's Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and Serena Farnocchia (soprano), Anna Maria Chiuri (mezzosoprano), Luciano Ganci (tenor), and Luiz-Ottavio Faria (bass).
I took the opportunity to talk to Maestro Frizza.
You will be in the Duomo on the very day of the 150th anniversary of Manzoni's death – what do Manzoni and Verdi mean to you?
Verdi and Manzoni are the heroes of the Italian Risorgimento and two of the greatest intellectuals that humanity has given us. They shared the same ideals of freedom, independence, and national unity. They have contributed to building up the consciousness of the Italian people.
What was your reaction when the proposal came through to conduct on this important occasion?
I'm flattered and honoured to participate in this significant event. It will make a mark on my life with no doubt.
Is this your first time conducting Verdi's Requiem?
No, it isn't. I made my debut many years ago at Bellas Artes in Mexico City with a great cast: Verónica Villarroel, Olga Borodina, Ramón Vargas, and Ildar Abdrazakov.
In a sentence, why is this work so great?
This work is so great because it is the affirmation of the personal feelings that a human being faces during mourning, which comes to us through the anguish, pain, and hope that the strength of Verdi's music expresses.
Are there special considerations with the reverberation of such a large space?
I have never conducted in the Duomo, so this will be my first time, but I know already that the acoustics are very “generous” and the reverberation lasts more than 6 seconds.
You've been music director at the Donizetti Opera Festival in Bergamo [Donizetti's hometown] for six years. The restoration of the Donizetti Theatre coincided with the pandemic.
The restoration of the Donizetti Theatre took only a short time if you consider the pandemic and what it meant to Bergamo [The New York Times wrote that “Bergamo became one of the deadliest killing fields for the virus in the Western world”.]
During the work, we staged L'Ange de Nisida for the first time, placing the singer in the centre of the theatre and the audience in the boxes and on stage. So, we inverted the traditional positions and experimented with a new way to present an opera production. The audience loved it.
In Bergamo, we are lucky to have two theatres: the Teatro Sociale in Bergamo Alta where we usually stage the early Donizetti operas, and the Donizetti Theatre, which has been completely renovated since 2020.
Next month, you'll be conducting the composer's Anna Bolena at Teatro San Carlo in Naples.
Being back at San Carlo is always very emotional because it was the Donizetti House. He was Artistic Director after Rossini, and he composed many of the operas in his extensive catalogue there. I'm very happy to have a great cast with Maria Agresta, Xabier Anduaga, Annalisa Stroppa and Alexander Vinogradov.
The opening night will be dedicated to Maria Callas in her centenary year – what do you think about her Donizetti interpretations?
Callas's interpretations marked a ‘before' and ‘after' in the history of the Italian melodrama, and therefore Donizetti. Let us not forget, however, that there were always great conductors besides Callas. I would like to mention Gianandrea Gavazzeni who was the first true initiator of the Donizetti renaissance [Gavazzeni was also born in Bergamo].
Like Gavazzeni, you are known as a conductor who loves and respects singers and voices.
I'm happy to hear that I'm known for respecting voices. I honestly respect the singers as I respect any other instrument in the orchestra. The problem arises when the human voice is asked for something that is impossible to do, or when a particular singer can't. The secret lies in recognizing the limit without exceeding it.
Conductors are used to paying a lot of attention to the musicians in the orchestra, avoiding pushing them to the edge and going beyond the limit of their possibilities. I don't understand why the same treatment shouldn't be reserved for voices as well.
La Scala Museum's Manzoni exhibition
In June, La Scala's museum will host a special exhibition dedicated to Manzoni. His memory will be celebrated through precious testimonies of the deep bond that united him to one of the composers closest to the city of Milan and La Scala: Giuseppe Verdi.
Visitors will be able to admire, next to the anastatic copy of the score of Verdi's Messa da Requiem – the original is kept in the Museum's archives – some letters, and an engraving. The letters bear witness to the mutual admiration between the two great protagonists of Italian culture of the time and a letter, written by Verdi and addressed to the Mayor of Milan Giulio Bellinzaghi, in which the composer makes explicit his devotion to Manzoni, “a model of virtue and patriotism”.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.