...I think that my own feelings are shared by everyone working on it: it is a joy and an honour...
“The Aida of Zenatello and Fagiuoli (the original, ‘first’ Arena production of 10 August 1913) is for the Arena in Verona what Bernini’s colonnade is for St Peter’s in Rome”: a gem I recently overheard on the car radio. Most likely a local station and perhaps a slight exaggeration! Nonetheless, whenever this venerable and resonant Aida reappears every now and then in the midst of the other productions, it gives us a gratifying sense of somehow returning home, of experiencing something familiar but new, of viewing an unfailingly stimulating product. In a way we are asked to imagine the Arena as it was seen by the tenor Zenatello when, standing among the bare stones of the amphitheatre back in 1913 (before any opera performances had been produced), he decided that this monument had been specially created for the staging of Aida.
This year it is again Gianfranco de Bosio who will revive the 1913 production. De Bosio is now over eighty, a fact that he sometimes pointedly mentions, perhaps to elicit the inevitable answer “I don’t believe it!”. By nature he is an intellectual, a teacher and a scholar, but he has worked in the theatre ever since his brilliant productions at the Teatro Ruzante in Padua in 1949. In 1981, when the superintendent Carlo Alberto Cappelli had the idea of reviving the production with which the Arena began its legendary career as an opera house, he entrusted the task to De Bosio. Cappelli was a man of ideas, and this idea was risky but excellent. He was also a man of honour and the contract was immediately sealed with a handshake. In the summer of 1982, the “old-new” Aida was acclaimed by a packed amphitheatre.
The decades go by, and in the meantime the world has turned upside down… What effect does it have, Maestro De Bosio, to revive this production?
I think that my own feelings are shared by everyone working on it: it is a joy and an honour. There is never the slightest doubt that this production possesses the right formula for relating the Egyptian world that Verdi envisaged and the space that we occupy today in the Arena. Not only because of its sheer size (26 metres of proscenium width and 30 metres of depth), but also because of the allure of the historical reconstruction, with thousands of spectators all physically gathered round the stage. What is more, the images are perfectly in harmony with what Verdi expected after striving so hard to remain faithful to the watercolour sketches of the archaeologist Mariette. In other words, we have studied Fagiuoli’s production with the same determination with which Fagiuoli – with the means available to him – studied Verdi and Mariette. This year I have also revived the ceiling for Act IV; in the earlier production it had been too complicated to set up. The task of raising a painted canvas as heavy as that in an area that size during the interval, without any roofing (with just the sky above), is quite a challenge for the stage hands.
As a production it seems remarkably modern and functional. You could call it a ‘modular’ production: the columns define the different situations and perspectives, giving unity to the visual image. And it doesn’t require long intervals for the scene changes.
The columns are invisibly paired and when they move they create the seven different situations required by the libretto. While they attract attention owing to the perfection of their movements and their beauty, at the same time they let the Arena breathe. They do not exclude it. The weakest Arena productions are those that set out to minimize the monument, cover it or twist it to make it look different. Other productions, on the other hand, have given it a central role: a good example is Luciano Damiani’s production of 1969, with its open spaces and beguiling sobriety.
Have you taken any liberties in this new production?
Only the liberties a stage director must take if he wants to create a living performance using artists that are always different. As well as the minor adjustments that must be made to ensure the greatest fidelity to the inspiring idea using the means available. In Act III, for example, the temple was initially intended to dominate the centre. But in agreement with the set designer Vittorio Rossi, I shifted it to one side, as the action requires, and gave the banks of the Nile the central role. Another thing is that every singer must be allowed to use his own gestures, to express his own truth. The stage director’s task is to bring life onto the stage.
Tell me more about that ‘life on stage’? In the many productions you have produced over the years you must have seen a great deal… In the book, “The Diary of a Production in the Arena” (published by Il Saggiatore), the ballerina Bianca Gallizia relates that once during the famous Moorish dance in Aida, the girls with their faces painted black no longer recognized one another and couldn’t find their positions; they did the best they could, but couldn’t help laughing; in this way each one of them earned a slap from the stage manager.
Of course the anecdotes are innumerable. And certain situations are often re-encountered. I can still remember the composure and thrilling simplicity of Maria Chiara as Aida. And the protests of the great Fiorenza Cossotto as Amneris, because after the duet (in which she leaves the stage first) Maria Chiara was given the opportunity to receive a lot of applause on her own as she crossed the large stage on the final chords. I can also remember the formidable tenor Bonisolli, an eccentric type, who liked to ride his bicycle at high speed round the stage (when it was bare during the daytime) singing “Se quel guerrier io fossi...” at the top of his voice.
And how do you think the younger generations will react to this venerable Aida?
I’m sure they will like it. They won’t be hearing a modernized opera, but an authentic Aida. Which is what it is, right down to the smallest details: in the timing and spaces for the great procession; in the Egyptian trumpets viewed from a distance and standing on high, with their brilliant, triumphal sound carrying over the orchestra; in the contrasting intimacy of the quieter moments. It is an Aida that could not be more like Aida. We will be putting them in Verdi’s hands. In good hands.
“Don’t write this down, of course”, Gianfranco de Bosio might have said, if he hadn’t been so wise to the way of interviews. Instead he merely shook his head, gave a knowing smile and delivered his paradoxical, wise opinion: “This marvellous Aida had the good fortune to have been conceived and realized by idealistic, skilled and generous men. People who had one distinct advantage: not enough time or money. They were simply forced to invent brilliant solutions.”
by Lorenzo Arruga