Ezio Frigerio has died at the age of 91. He made theatre history alongside Giorgio Strehler, Rudolf Nureyev, Eduardo De Filippo, and Vittorio De Sica. He leaves his wife and frequent collaborator, the costume designer Franca Squarciapino.
Frigerio had been ill for some time and recently was taken to the hospital in Lecco. He was born in Erba in July 1930 and after a long period in Paris, he returned to live in his hometown in a house overlooking Lake Pusiano.
His fifty-year-long collaboration with director Giorgio Strehler at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan saw one success after another, right until Strehler’s last production – Così fan tutte in 1997. His many set designs for La Scala are also unforgettable.
In the cinema, Frigerio designed the sets for Ieri oggi domani in 1963 with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastorianni. He also worked with Bernardo Bertolucci and Liliana Cavani.
After many ballet productions together, it was Frigerio who designed Nureyev’s tomb in the Russian Orthodox cemetery in Paris.
In his long career he created more than 300 productions for most of the most important theatres in Europe and the world: Paris, Milan, New York, London, Berlin, Tokyo, Madrid, Barcelona, Toulouse, Buenos Aires.
He has received major European theatre awards: he won the Molière (the French Critics’ Prize) twice, the English Critics’ Prize, Italy’s Abbiati Prize twice, the César for cinema, the European Community Prize and was nominated for an Oscar. He has been awarded important honours, such as the Legion of Honour for artistic merit and the title of Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, the Ambrogino d’oro by the City of Milan, the Medalla de Oro al Mérito en las Bellas Artes received in Madrid from the King and Queen of Spain, and the Rosa Camuna awarded by the Lombardy Region of Italy.
He married Franca Squarciapino in 1972.
The last production by Frigerio-Squarciapino was last October with Los gavilanes at the Teatro della Zarzuela in Madrid.
Frigerio began his collaboration with Giorgio Strehler in 1955 at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan, creating his major stage designs for the theatre’s play, and it was with Strehler that he made his first designs for opera with Simon Boccanegra, Falstaff, Lohengrin and Don Giovanni at La Scala. This collaboration also led to Le nozze di Figaro for the Paris Opéra, a production which was then performed in many European theatres. In the ‘70s and ‘80s at La Scala and the Paris Opéra, he also worked with directors such as Piero Faggioni, Liliana Cavani, Lluis Pasqual, Andrej Končalovskij, Graham Vick, Luca Ronconi and Gilbert Deflo.
In 1975 he made his debut in the world of ballet with Roland Petit creating the sets for Coppélia and The Nutcracker for the Ballet de Marseille, then Nana at the Paris Opera and Cyrano de Bergerac. In 1977 he met Rudolf Nureyev, with whom he formed a deep friendship, and he created the sets for Nureyev’s productions of Swan Lake (two versions), La Bayadère and Sleeping Beauty at the Paris Opera, as well as Romeo and Juliet at the London Festival Ballet, and Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet at La Scala.
In the fruitful Parisian period he produced, again with Strehler, Goldoni’s La villeggiatura and Corneille’s L’illusion comique at the Théâtre de l’Odéon. He also formed a close friendship with the director Roger Planchon, with whom he created many shows, including Georges Dandin and Dom Juan by Molière, and Athalie by Racine. With Nicolas Joël he created numerous productions for the Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse, including Carmen, Jenůfa, Otello, Don Carlo, Les contes d’Hoffmann and La rondine. His American career moved from Chicago (Don Pasquale, Les contes d’Hoffmann) to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he created the sets for Francesca da Rimini, Il trovatore, Lucia di Lammermoor and La rondine.
In the 1960s Frigerio worked in the cinema, mainly thanks to Vittorio De Sica, with whom he made Ieri, oggi, domani, I sequestrati d’Altona, Il boom. He then collaborated with directors such as Bolognini, Cavani, Planchon, Castellani, Končalovskij and others, but he was particularly proud of Bertolucci’s Novecento and Rappeneau’s Cyrano de Bergerac.
Frigerio made his debut at La Scala in 1955, designing the costumes for Il matrimonio segreto for the inauguration of the Piccola Scala. It was a long and fruitful collaboration with the Milanese theatre, first as costume designer and then as set designer, where he also designed many season-opening productions: L’angelo di fuoco by Prokof’ev, L’Orfeo by Monteverdi, Louise by Charpentier, Il cappello di paglia di Firenze, Iphigenia in Aulide, Otello (7 December 1959), I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Simon Boccanegra (7 December 1971 and 1978), Paradise Lost by Krzysztof Penderecki, Falstaff (7 December 1980), Le nozze di Figaro, Lohengrin (7 December 1981), Les Troyens, Ernani (7 December 1982), Don Giovanni (7 December 1987), Fidelio (in 1990 and then 7 December 1999), La dama di picche, Rigoletto, Gianni Schicchi, Manon by Massenet, Otello (7 December 2001), Carmen and La donna del lago.
La Scala left a statement that reads:
The news of Ezio Frigerio’s death has deeply shaken La Scala’s management, artists and workers, many who collaborated with him for decades and those who, growing up with his productions, have considered him an essential part of a common heritage made up from art, tradition, knowledge and enthusiasm. Frigerio was active for over half a century designing for plays, ballet, opera and cinema, establishing himself as one of the pivotal figures of 20th century Italian culture: a set designer capable of leaving a decisive mark on the productions of all the great directors with whom he worked, from Strehler to Ronconi, from Liliana Cavani to Graham Vick.
At La Scala, Ezio Frigerio designed 32 productions (including several guest companies, such as Ballet de Marseille, and the collaboration with Franca Squarciapino on The Sleeping Beauty in 1995), seven of which opened the season. Many of his productions have become classics of our theatre and have been revived frequently, both in the theatre and on tour. Over the years, his productions have returned to 120 times for a total of 774 performances.
A personal note: when I last spoke to Ezio Frigerio, at La Scala in 2019, he laughed about his often costly scenery saying, “How much money have I made this theatre spend during all these years!” His designs were well worth the money.