The great productions

Tradition and Innovation

By Teatro Alla Scala

La Scala’s first production

La Scala’s audiences like nothing more than lavish spectacle. It was ever thus. In 1778, Antonio Salieri’s new opera Europa riconosciuta inaugurated La Scala with a feast for the eyes. 20 glorious scenes depicted tempestuous seas, forests, cliffs, pharaonic temples and expansive countryside.

View of the Teatro Grande alla Scala, drawing by Giuseppe Piermarini engraving by Domenico Aspari. by Domenico Aspari (1745-1831)Teatro Alla Scala

Toscanini, who had changed the listening habits of the Scala audience, also intervened in the field of directing by calling the great innovator of the Wagnerian theatre Adolphe Appia for Tristan und Isolde in 1923. Appia's abstract scenes shocked audiences and critics alike, but La Scala began its path as a theatre open to innovation.

Internal view of the Teatro alla Scala, on the stage the curtain of A. Monticelli, audience in the hall and in the boxes, around 1830Teatro Alla Scala

Mario Frigerio was the first director to be listed on a La Scala playbill, for his production of Verdi's Falstaff.

Mario Frigerio e Renata Tebaldi prove La TraviataTeatro Alla Scala

Postwar innovation
In the postwar years the former dancer Margherita Wallmann, who had begun her career as a director thanks to Max Reinhardt, produced numerous productions including Medea with sets by Salvatore Fiume and Maria Callas in the title role and the world premiere of Poulenc's The Dialogues of the Carmelites. Tat'jana Pavlova is one of the first opera directors from the prose theatre. after her debut at La Scala in 1953 with Boris Godunov, she was entrusted with the opening of the following season with Catalani's Wally. The direction divided the critics and aroused the fury of the audience who saw a car go on stage at La Scala for the first time. Thereafter, the work of Giorgio Strehler (from 1947) and Luchino Visconti (from 1954) helped establish the role of the director as an artist in his own right.

Giorgio Strehler prove La traviata 1947.Teatro Alla Scala

Visconti, and Callas’s shoes
“I started to direct opera because of, no, not because of, but for Maria Callas,” said the legendary film director Luchino Visconti. He would create 5 productions for the Greek diva over a period of three years.It was a trail-blazing collaboration: Callas, a consummate stage animal, oozed drama from every pore; Visconti, a visionary, was bold enough to interpret works through fresh eyes. In 1955, Visconti's new production of La traviata, starring Callas as Violetta, changed the course of opera for good. Following the party scene, Callas/Violetta took off her shoes and flung them into the air - a purely dramatic rather than musical gesture that broke with historical convention, opening the way for modern opera direction.

Luchino Visconti e Maria Callas prove La traviata 1955Teatro Alla Scala

Strehler: mesmerising grandiosity
The Piccolo Teatro, founded by Giorgio Strehler and Paolo Grassi in 1947, offered "drama for the workers at the lowest possible prices”. With his radical theatre for the masses, Strehler established himself as one of the greats of the avant-garde alongside Peter Brook, Jerzy Grotowski and Ingmar Bergman.

Giorgio Strehler durante le prove di Simon Boccanegra 1971Teatro Alla Scala

He was no less influential at La Scala. Strehler’s 1971 production of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, one of the last sweeping conceptions popular during the postwar era, features mixed clean lines, panoramic views and the poetic symbolism of ships (sets by Frigerio).

His 1975 production of Verdi’s Macbeth with sets designed by Luciano Damiani provides a typical example of Strehler’s mesmerising lighting schemes. Regal figures in flowing gowns traverse a raked stage; the silhouettes of flag-bearing soldiers are seen against resplendent blue and gold backdrops. A sheet ominously billows overhead.

Giorgio Strehler durante le prove di Simon Boccanegra 1971Teatro Alla Scala

The tradition of drama theatre
The close link between prose and opera direction that characterizes the work of Visconti and Strehler can be found in many directors active at La Scala after the 1950s. Franco Enriquez, after having been assistant to both, is a constant presence from 1956 to 1971. Giorgio de Lullo, who had begun his career as an actor, signed productions directed by Gianandrea Gavazzeni and Claudio Abbado between 1963 and 1980. Acting and directing prose also constitute the background of Piero Faggioni.

Concerto Gianandrea Gavazzeni - Sinfonia N. 6 In La Magg.Teatro Alla Scala

Zeffirellian resplendence
Franco Zeffirelli, Luchino Visconti's one-time assistant, was the King of grand spectacle. In his 1963 staging of La bohème, which had clocked up 200 La Scala performances by 2015, the Latin Quarter, a square between towering 19th-century apartments, was a riot of activity featuring assorted merry-makers, parades of tricolour-waving gendarmes and gangs of street urchins. Musetta entered in a (real) horse-drawn carriage.

Franco Zeffirelli.Teatro Alla Scala

Equally grand was Zeffirelli’s 1963 production of Aida, in which the grand gate of Thebes stretched into the hazy distance, dignitaries in sundry regalia gathered beneath imposing sphinxes, and palm trees swayed beneath pharaonic busts. The director’s new production of the same opera in 2006 was even bigger. During the Triumphal March, 300 people flooded a stage that heaved with gold enamel and swirling incense.

Aida 2006Teatro Alla Scala

Abbado and Ponnelle’s sparkling Rossini
Among the distinctive traits of Claudio Abbado's musical direction we cannot forget the rediscovery of Rossini's opera buffa. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's direction assured him a perfect correspondence between the scenic action and the score.

Il Barbiere Di SivigliaTeatro Alla Scala

Ronconi’s enchanting imagination
For four decades, Luca Ronconi, Strehler’s successor at the Piccolo Teatro, enchanted La Scala with his unfettered imagination. The auto-da-fé scene in his 1977 production of Verdi's Don Carlo replaced the grandeur of the traditional mass scenes with a gloomy procession that scandalized the public. In Aida in 1985 the scene of triumph was seen from the point of view of the slaves engaged in transporting colossal stone sphinxes.

Luca Ronconi con Luciano Pavarotti prove Aida 1985Teatro Alla Scala

In a 1991 staging of Cherubini's Lodoïska, a thing of "poignant beauty and visionary theatricality”, according to La Repubblica, Dourlinsky's castle was seen through the opening of a castle from the bottom up.

Lodoiska 1991Teatro Alla Scala

The theatre game according to Pizzi
After his debut as a stage designer Pier Luigi Pizzi became one of the protagonists of the Italian theatre scene of the 80s and 90s, interpreting the baroque theatre machine in a contemporary key. Among his numerous successes at La Scala is the sumptuous opening of the 1996/1997 season with Gluck’s Armide. Pizzi's brilliant spirit has made him an ideal interpreter of the Rossini Renaissance both in Pesaro and at La Scala. Pizzi returned to collaborate as set designer with Luca Ronconi for the reopening of the Theatre in 2004 with Europa riconosciuta.

ArmideTeatro Alla Scala

Nudity onstage
The 1996 world premiere of Luciano Berio's Outis featured what was probably the first case of full frontal nudity at La Scala. Billed as a modern day Ulysses, Greek scholar Dario Del Corno’s multilanguage libretto recounts the allegorical adventures of a fictional hero in various locations -- a bank, a supermarket, a ship -- to a score incorporating jazz, popular songs and electronic sound technology. Director Graham Vick provided gaudy carnivals, a giant inflatable man onstage and a large, blinking eye. One critic questioned whether the brothel scene was real or simulated.

OutisTeatro Alla Scala

International radicals
With the arrival of superintendent Stéphane Lissner in 2005, a more international era dawned. The Frenchman aimed to challenge local audiences, and opened the doors to veteran radicals and up-and-coming enfants terrible.

ElektraTeatro Alla Scala

Chéreau’s last production
Patrice Chéreau, a doyen of Europe’s theatre and opera scene, became a regular fixture, captivating audiences with expertly crafted productions that were penetrating and intense. Tristan und Isolde in 2007, set during the Industrial Revolution rather than in mediaeval Cornwall, featured a rusty barge and stagnant river in place of the libretto’s ship and sea.

Strauss’s Elektra would be Chéreau’s last staging. The director died in October 2013, while preparing a revival of the production for La Scala.

Tristan und Isolde 2007Teatro Alla Scala

Carsen: cynicism, satire and finesse
Robert Carsen’s intimate staging of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites (2000) features striking contrasts of light and is a typically attractive conception from a director with an eye for beauty.

Dialogues des carmelites 2000Teatro Alla Scala

Elsewhere, he has offered biting satire. In Bernstein's Candide (2007), there were farcical depictions of the Pope and impersonations of political leaders Tony Blair, George Bush, Vladimir Putin, Jacques Chirac and Silvio Berlusconi wearing nothing but a tie and tight-fitting swimming trunks in the colours of their respective national flags.
The staging had outraged Parisians at the premiere the year before. In Milan the production went ahead despite criticism, and proved a success.

Candide 2007Teatro Alla Scala

In Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which opened the season in 2011, Carsen reflected the audience in mirrors placed onstage, thus placing the glamorous opening night guests themselves at the heart of the work’s moralising reflections on class and privilege. In a cynical final flourish, the cigar-chugging Giovanni looked on as his adversaries descended into hell. Mario Monti, the newly-instated Prime Minister, attended after Berlusconi’s years of absence.

Don Giovanni 2011Teatro Alla Scala

In his production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare, Carsen relocated Nicola Francesco Haym’s libretto, depicting rival Roman factions in civil-war-torn ancient Egypt, to a modern-day Middle East occupied by western armed forces. We see a war room, a military compound and a palace in which emissaries exchange diplomatic gifts. A pipeline seen during the final chorus indicates Lidia’s true commercial agenda.

Giulio Cesare 2019 Danielle DeniseTeatro Alla Scala

Wilson and the ancient world
The opening performance of Texan director Robert Wilson's visionary 1987 production of Salome was booed by the loggionisti. Unphased, Lissner entrusted the director with La Scala's first staging of Monteverdi's opera trilogy. In L’Orfeo (2009), the ancient world was re-envisioned through modern eyes. Cypresses set against crepuscular backdrops cast a mournful atmosphere. A manicured garden was consumed by an inferno.

L'Orfeo 2009Teatro Alla Scala

<bthe new generation< /b>
Controversially, in 2012, the joint bicentenary year of Verdi and Wagner’s deaths, the season opened with Wagner. The following year, however, Dmitri Tcherniakov's production of La traviata signalled the return of Verdi to the “Prima”. Still, some objected to aspects of the staging, for example when in Act II Alfredo was seen preparing pasta and chopping vegetables in the kitchen of Violetta's country house. "Fool! Go home," roared the loggionisti.

La TraviataTeatro Alla Scala

In 2009, Emma Dante, the experimental theatre director, opened the season with a new production of Bizet’s Carmen, her first foray into opera. Dante’s generalised Mediterranean, rather than Bizet's Spain, was raw, carnal and steeped in religious symbolism. Gypsies flashed knives; disrobing nuns frolicked in a fountain.

CarmenTeatro Alla Scala

Falstaff comes home
Damiano Michieletto’s 2013 production of Verdi Un ballo in maschera, set during a modern-day American election campaign, looked doomed even before it had begun, with La Repubblica warning some had bought tickets for the opening performance simply to boo. During the show, leaflets condemning excessive directorial liberties were launched from the gallery. "Forgive them, Verdi, because they do not know what they are doing," cried the loggionisti.

Un Ballo In MascheraTeatro Alla Scala

Michieletto returned in 2017, with a production of Verdi's Falstaff, originally for Salzburg, which went down rather better. Set in the Casa Verdi, the home for retired musicians founded by Verdi in Milan, the staging depicts Falstaff as a retired singer, first seen snoozing and dreaming of past glories. The formidable baritone Ambrogio Maestri was a roguish Falstaff.

Falstaff 2017Teatro Alla Scala

Back to storytelling
The multifaceted director Mario Martone and Margarita Palli, Luca Ronconi’s one time scenographer, have collaborated on some of La Scala’s most memorable productions in recent years. In Giordano’s La cena delle beffe (2016), they provide a cinematic collage featuring Louis’ Restaurant that is taken straight out of The Godfather, and a Ginevra, the heroine, with the glam and tragedy of Marilyn Monroe.

La Cena Delle BeffeTeatro Alla Scala

Martone and Palli collaborated again to create arevolutionary Paris for Andrea Chénier in 2017 and a powerful apocalyptic fresco for Chovanscina in 2019.

Chovanscina 2018Teatro Alla Scala

Davide Livermore has been one go-to director for big-boned productions. His 2018 production of Don Pasquale features a train station, the Cinecittà studios and a flying Lancia Aurelia Spider car. In Attila, which opened the season in 2018, Livermore’s Second World War relocation of Verdi’s Risorgimento-era opera sees colossal sets dropped in from the flies. For Puccini’s Tosca, the following year’s “Prima”, he provides a sumptuous baroque church, an atmospheric palazzo and a broodingly lit castle. Having sets move around the singers, rather than vice versa, recalled the camera zooms and panning shots of a film.

Don PasqualeTeatro Alla Scala

Credits: Story

[Credits: curated by James Imam and the Teatro alla Scala]

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