Italian director Luca Ronconi died yesterday evening in the Policlinico in Milan after a short illness. His health had been poor over the last years, he was on dialysis, and was complicated by pneumonia. He was 81. His collaboration with La Scala lasted for over thirty years and today the flag outside the theatre is flying at half-mast, and Riccardo Muti will dedicate tonight's Mozart Requiem in Chicago to his memory. He said,
He was the director that I worked with the most. The first time was in Florence for Orfeo e Euridice. It was the '70s and the success was amazing; a style which revolutionised the way of directing operas. Later, many European directors were to follow his path.
Italian State Television, the Rai, will dedicate all its afternoon and evening programming to Ronconi on 22 February.
Ronconi was born on 8 March 1933 in Tunisia and graduated from the Accademia d'Arte Drammatica (Academy of Dramatic Art) in Rome in 1953. He worked as an actor before starting his career as a director in 1963. The show that raised him to international stardom was Ariosto's Orlando Furioso in 1969, an enormous project that was later filmed by Italian television in 1975.
He started directing operas at the beginning of his career and his long collaboration with La Scala in Milan began in 1974 with Die Walküre, and the year after in Bologna he directed a Faust with Ruggero Raimondi and Mirella Freni with sumptuous designs by Pierluigi Pizzi. In 1977 he directed an ambitious Don Carlo at La Scala with designs by Luciano Damiani. The extraordinary cast included Nicolai Ghiaurov, Yevgeny Nesterenko, Piero Cappuccilli, Josè Carreras, Mirella Freni and Elena Obraztsova with Claudio Abbado conducting. The scene of the auto-da-fé was so complex that the street outside the theatre was closed to allow the large procession to form.
Ronconi was the director of the Theatre Section of the Venice Biennale from 1975 until 1977. During the seventies he staged numerous memorable plays, including Oresteia by Aeschylus in 1972 and Aristophanes' Utopia in 1976.
From the late seventies he worked extensively with the Teatro Comunale in Florence directing several Wagner operas, a Norma with Renata Scotto, a Les contes d'Hoffmann with costumes by Karl Lagerfeld (and a cast including Neil Shicoff, Sesto Bruscantini, Arleen Auger, Catherine Malfitano and Brigitte Fassbaender), and an extravagant Il Trovatore with designs again by Pizzi.
The 1980s saw a number of milestone productions, considered to be high points in the history of post-war Italian theatre: Ignorabimus by Holz (1986), Les Dialogues des Carmélites by Bernanos (1988) and Chekhov's Three Sisters (1989).
Ronconi's 1983 Moïse et Pharaon for the Théatre de l'Opéra had scenes by Gianni Quaranta, costumes by Giuseppe Crisolini Malatesta, Georges Prêtre on the podium, and Samuel Ramey and Shirley Verrett on stage. Like many of his productions, it is available on video.
1984 saw his famous Il viaggio a Reims for the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro. Gae Aulenti's sparse but inventive sets, and witty direction from Ronconi, were winning, but it was Abbado's cast which made melomanes swoon: Cecilia Gasdia, Lucia Valentini Terrani, Lella Cuberli, Katia Ricciarelli, Edoardo Gimenez, Chris Merritt, Samuel Ramey, Ruggero Raimondi, Enzo Dara, Giorgio Surjan etc, etc.
Ronconi loved introducing technology into his productions, and was one of the first to use large scale video projections in Italy. His 1988 production with Riccardo Muti of Guglielmo Tell for La Scala – with Cheryl Studer and Chris Merritt – used giant screens for projections that covered the entire area of the theatre's vast stage.
From 1989 until 1994 he was director of the Turin repertory theatre. In 1990 he directed The Last Days of Mankind by Kraus in the enormous FIAT factory machine room in the “Lingotto” in Turin. Ambitious large-scale staging and long running times were constant factors in his work.
During this period he directed a visually striking Oberon with designs by Margherita Palli and Vera Marzot – regular collaborators – who also designed his productions of Riccardo Chailly's Don Giovanni in Bologna (1990), and Falstaff with Georg Solti for the Salzburg Festival (1993). Renée Fleming's critically acclaimed Armida in Pesaro (1993) also had costumes by Marzot. Palli designed over sixty productions for Ronconi and remembers him as “Always studying, always reading”.
In 1994 he became director of the Teatro di Roma, where he directed a number of landmark productions including Shakespeare's King Lear, Verso “Peer Gynt” from the Ibsen play of the same name (1995), Gadda's That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana (1996) and The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky (1998).
Ronconi returned to architect Gae Aulenti for his powerful meat-factory Elektra, with blood-splattered walls, at La Scala in 1994 with Giuseppe Sinopoli. In complete contrast, he directed an intimate, black and white – or rather, shades of gray – production of Britten's Turn of the Screw in 1995 at Turin's magnificent Teatro Carignano. This was again with Palli and Marzot, and gave Raina Kabaivanska one of her last great roles.
Again for La Scala he produced a Tosca in 1997 (Palli/Marzot) and in 1998 he returned to Pesaro for a Cenerentola with Vesselina Kasarova and Juan Diego Florez.
A year after Giorgio Strehler's death at the end of 1997, he became Artistic Director of the Piccolo Teatro di Milano. Every season since he has directed productions which are exceptional in their visual quality, though some critics have accused him of being too self indulgent with running times at up to five hours. His first work for the theatre was Calderón de La Barca's Life is a Dream and Strindberg's A Dream Play in the winter of 2000. During the 2000-2001 season, he directed Lolita: A Screenplay by Nabokov, The Two Venetian Twins by Goldoni and Candelaio by Bruno; whilst the next season, he staged What Maisie Knew by Henry James and Infinities by the mathematician Barrow.
In the summer of 2002, in the Greek Theatre of Syracuse, he staged the trilogy Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, The Bacchae by Euripides and The Frogs by Aristophanes.
Meanwhile, for the opera stage, he had brief phase of putting cars on stage, both in his 1999 Don Giovanni for Salzburg and his L'incoronazione di Poppea in Florence (2000). Other notable productions in this period were of Aribert Reimann's Lear at the Teatro Regio in Turin (2001), La donna del lago at Pesaro (2001), Giulio Cesare in Egitto at Madrid's Teatro Real (2002), and Schubert's Alfonso und Estrella for Cagliari's Teatro Lirico (2004).
Also in 2004 he was chosen to mount the production to reopen La Scala after the restoration project and the rebuilding of the stage and backstage area. Salieri's Europa riconosciuta was designed by Pizzi and made full use of the stage's new technology. Riccardo Muti was in the pit conducting Diana Damrau, Désirée Rancatore, Daniela Barcellona and Giuseppe Sabbatini with Alessandra Ferri and Roberto Bolle featured in the dances.
For Genova Capitale Europea della Cultura 2004 (European Capital of Culture in 2004), he directed The Centaur by Andreini. In 2005 he staged the touching Diario Privato by Léautaud, with two giants of the Italian stage: Giorgio Albertazzi and Anna Proclemer.
For the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, he was invited to direct five shows that paid tribute to the Olympic symbol, which included Edward Bond's The War Plays. In January 2007, for the three hundredth anniversary of Goldoni's birth, he staged the comedy The Fan at the Teatro Strehler.
In 2006 he staged the ‘nude' Turandot to help the ailing finances of Turin's Teatro Regio with the aid of stage machinery, usually used to shift scenery, to move Turandot over the heads of the other protagonists, and chairs and black tie used for concert performances, saving the theatre thousands of euros. The same year also saw a Falstaff in Florence with Zubin Mehta conducting.
For the 2007 edition of the Salone del Libro in Turin, he presented Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. A complicated affair with metal ramps and bars and large jets of flames which risked scorching the front rows.
In September 2007, in Ferrara, the project Odissea doppio ritorno made its debut: a diptych consisting of L'antro delle Ninfe, from Homer and Porphyry, and Ithaka by Botho Strauss (2007).
2008 saw his last project with La Scala, Puccini's Il trittico with a moving Barbara Frittoli as Suor Angelica pulling herself across a stage-width statute of the Madonna, and a very funny Leo Nucci in Gianni Schicchi.
His latest productions at the Piccolo Teatro have been: the two Shakespearean plays A Midsummer Night's Dream (2008) and The Merchant of Venice (2009), the comedy It's Only the End of the World by the Jean-Luc Lagarce, Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy (2010), Edward Bond's In the Company of Men (2011) and Saint Joan of the Stockyards (2012), his first experience with the theatre of Bertolt Brecht. He also dedicated a project to the Argentine playwright Rafael Spregelburd, with the staging of Modesty (2011) and Panic (2013). In 2014 he directed Celestina laggiù vicino alle concerie in riva al fiume (Célestine là-bas près des tanneries au bord de la rivière) by Michel Garneau, from Fernando de Rojas and Pornografia by Witold Gombrowicz (2014).
Ronconi's last opera production was Armida at Pesaro which he directed last summer. Again he was working alongside his favourite designer, Margherita Palli.
Luca Ronconi was also an exhibition curator. The exhibition Anton Van Dyck-Riflessi Italiani was inaugurated on February 2004, at Milan's Palazzo Reale. In September 2006, he was curator of the evocative exhibition Cina: Nascita di un Impero at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome. He curated the exhibition La bella Italia. Arte e identità delle città capitali, presented in the Juvarriane stables of La Venaria Reale in Turin, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Unification of Italy (2011).
Numerous prizes include the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in 2012 from the Theatre section of La Biennale and he has received honorary degrees from the Universities of Bologna (1999), Perugia (2003), Urbino (2006) and Venice (2012).
A private funeral will be held on 24 February.
Luca Ronconi: 8 March 1933 – 21 February 2015
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.