On Sunday, the 4th of July, Riccardo Muti leads the Cherubini Orchestra and the Armenian State Chamber Choir

On his journey in that “kingdom of the screaming stones”, Russian poet Osip Mandelstam wrote: “Three apples have fallen from the sky: the first is for those who have told the story, the second for those who have listened, the third for those who have understood. So most of the Armenian fables end”. And Ravenna Festival is listening, thanks to The Roads of Friendship, the project that since 1997 has visited cities that have made ancient and contemporary history. Riccardo Muti leads the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra, joined by musicians of the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Armenian State Chamber Choir, on July 4 in the Yerevan Opera Theatre, in the concert that renews – twenty years after the Festival’s first journey to Armenia – ties dating back to the Roman and Byzantine times, when Ravenna hosted a flourishing Armenian community. Together with sacred music by Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert, the pained spirituality of this country, the first that embraced Christianity over 1700 years ago, will be represented by the world premiere of Purgatorio, commissioned by the Ravenna Festival from Tigran Mansurian, the greatest living Armenian composer, for the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death in Ravenna. Tenor Giovanni Sala, and Armenian Nina Minasyan and Gurgen Baveyan, soprano and baritone respectively, will join In the performance; the choir is led by Robert Mlkeyan. The concert is made possible by the support of the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the International Cooperation and the collaboration with the Italian Embassy in Yerevan and the Centre for the Studies on Armenian Culture of Venice.

“We still remember the emotional silence, the intense feeling in the Arts and Sports Palace in Yerevan in the summer of 2001, when we performed in an all-Verdi programme – remembers Riccardo Muti – Today, twenty years after that concert, we are back in that hard, ancient land between the West and the East. We build another bridge of brotherhood, a sign of hope, as we still believe that music overcomes misunderstanding and differences in culture, language, religion. Music makes it easy to understand each other because music is everyone’s language, it’s universal like Dante’s poetry, that we wish to celebrate together with the Armenian people, who know it and love it. Because we can find ourselves and the others in beauty, in poetry, in the arts; find again the warmth of an embrace, and peace.”

On the summit of Mount Ararat, traditionally represented as the resting place of Noah’s ark, life resumed after the Flood; in sight of the thousand-year-old mountain, that the Armenians consider holy, Ravenna Festival renews the message of brotherhood and hope in the future of The Roads of Friendship, the project started in 1997 when the Festival answered the call from Sarajevo. Since that iconic concert in the martyr-city of Bosnia, Muti has led Italian choirs and orchestras, joined on every occasion by the local musicians. Among the unforgettable events, the concerts in Beirut, Jerusalem, Moscow, New York after 9/11, Nairobi, Tehran, Kyiv, and, in 2020, in the Archaeological site in Paestum, twinned with Palmyra in Syria. This year, in Yerevan, Italian and Armenian musicians will share the stage for the second time after the concert in Italy on July 1.

16th-century historian Girolamo Rossi claims that Ravenna was founded by the descendant of Noah from Armenia. Albeit untrue, these legends suggest that there were ancient ties: at the time of the Romans, Armenians lived in such a great number in the harbour of Classe that a whole neighbourhood was called Armenia; more Armenians arrived in Ravenna when the city was ruled by general Narses, Emperor Justinian’s representative, and later by exarch Isaac, both of Armenian origins. Chasing the echo of that past, the Festival travelled to Yerevan in 2001 on the occasion of the celebration for the 1700th anniversary of Christianity in Armenia. Another celebration – the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death that inspires the declaration of love of the Festival’s 32nd edition – offers the occasion to return to Yerevan with the new composition by Tigran Mansurian. This is the second of the three works inspired by Dante’s Commedia: the first, Giovanni Sollima’s Six études on the Inferno premiered on June 10, while Valentin Silvestrov’s O luce etterna will be presented in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe on July 9.

“I have always kept an Armenian translation of the Commedia on my desk – says Tigran Mansurian, whose most delicate and crystalline style is often inspired by sacred music but also by traditional and folk music – so I was happy to be asked to create a new composition on the Commedia but I also felt responsible before Dante and Maestro Muti: I started this work three times and eventually completed its fourth draft. I also had to reduce the number of performers owing to the social distancing and I was glad for the chance to rewrite the work for the baritone, chamber choir, string and percussion orchestra. I think this version is the final one and the one closer to my musical world in connection with the Dante-universe. I am sure this concert, together with the Roads of Friendship twenty years ago, will be one of the most meaningful and memorable events of the cultural life in Armenia of the last decades.”

For Purgatorio, Mansurian put two well-known parts of the poem side by side: the beginning of the first canto, “Per correr miglior acque alza le vele”, and the prayer of Our Father opening the ninth canto. The musical programme is completed by three other sacred music pieces: Haydn’s Te Deum where the celebratory momentum is coupled with the composer’s serene and rational religiosity; Mozart’s Kyrie in D minor K. 341, notable for its chromatic nuances and opulent instrumentation; young Schubert’s Mass no. 2 in G major D. 167 – composed, they say, in less than a week, but tender and delicate, creating the proper mood for contemplation and prayer.