La Scala to Open Season With Hotly Anticipated New Zeffirelli Staging of Aida

Classic Arts News   La Scala to Open Season With Hotly Anticipated New Zeffirelli Staging of Aida
 
It's always one of the biggest nights of the year in Italy — for music, for fashion, for politics, even for protesters. Milan's Teatro alla Scala, one of the world's two or three truly legendary opera houses, opens its season this evening with a brand-new production of Verdi's Aida by Franco Zeffirelli.

A big night for politics — Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be attending, as will Greek President Karolos Papoulias, Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, culture ministers from several European nations and oil ministers from at least three OPEC members. For fashion — Donatella Versace will be but the most famous of designers in the audience, and the famously couture-conscious Milanese make a point of dressing in their finest for La Scala's opening night. As for protesters — this is a major media event in Italy, and activists of all stripes come out to make themselves heard; observers can make a sport of keeping track of which causes turn up from year to year, like birdwatchers do.

Once everyone is inside, they'll be hearing and seeing an impressive team of performers. Violeta Urmana, the former mezzo whose career took off in a major way when she switched to dramatic soprano roles, sings Aida for the first time. Star tenor Roberto Alagna portrays her doomed beloved, the Egyptian commander Radames, with Irina Makarova as the Egyptian princess Amneris and Carlo Guelfi as the enslaved Ethiopian king Amonasro. On the podium will be Riccardo Chailly, chief conductor of the Leipzig Opera and Gewandhaus Orchestra and former maestro of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Franco Zeffirelli is known to the wider world for directing films like Romeo and Juliet and the television miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (still broadcast at Eastertime every year in many places). But the energetic 83-year-old has spent most of his career staging operas — from the near-mythic 1965 Covent Garden Tosca starring Maria Callas to the notorious 1998 Met Traviata with dancing cows at Flora's party. Within the opera world, Zeffirelli is (in)famous for his enormous, elaborate and very expensive productions. (His huge golden palace set for Act II of Turandot, for instance, gets applause from the Met audience as soon as the curtain goes up.)

The stakes are high for Zeffirelli with this Aida. Not only is it the highest-profile production of the year in Italy, it's a huge milestone in the director's own relationship with La Scala: Though his history with the house goes back to his 1953 debut, this is his first new staging there in 14 years. He was a fierce and very public opponent of Riccardo Muti during the conductor's stormy 19-year tenure as La Scala's music director, and he's working there now only because Muti left the house amid enormous turmoil last year.

For his (hopefully) triumphant return, Zeffirelli is promising what he calls "the Aida of Aidas ... vast and rich, everything white and gold," as he told the Corriere della Sera, "a great spectacle full of Italian pride."

Yet, he indicated to the Associated Press, it won't be as hyper-realistic as some of his stagings have been. (He is said once to have had onions fried offstage to provide the proper aroma for a scene in a caf_.) In this Aida, he said, "Nothing is totally defined. Everything is expecting your imagination to complete it. It is a more tantalizing invitation to your mind to grab the essence of what I wanted to deliver. It's very spectacular." Indeed — as Reuters reports, towering over the stage will be a huge Tutankhamen-style mask that used 200 kilos (440 pounds) of gold dust.

"For God's sake, opening La Scala, it must be spectacular."

There has been some objection in Italy to the production's enormous cost — which is, after all, paid for in part from government coffers. La Scala's artistic director St_phane Lissner called the controversy "pointless and groundless" in a press conference last week, according to the Italian news agency AGI. He went on to claim that revenue from the production would be €1.5 million more than expenses (which he did not detail). Lissner did say, though, that "I wanted an Aida to be exported; indeed, we will be on tour in Japan in 2009 and in China the following year".

The Italians, meanwhile, have flocked to it: the entire 11-performance run was sold out within 24 hours, according to Reuters, despite a top ticket price of €2,000.


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