Zeffirelli's 'Aida' brings glory days back to La Scala

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The Independent Online

Franco Zeffirelli, Italy's master of the operatic spectacular, returned to La Scala in Milan last night with a gigantic production of Aida.

The opera featured 310 actors on stage at one time (during the Triumphal March) and an auditorium crammed with VIPs including the Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

It was a thunderous comeback for the 83-year-old director from Florence, who has snubbed Italy's most famous opera house for the past 14 years after a disastrous production of Don Carlo in 1992 in which Pavarotti was noisily whistled for singing out of tune.

After that fiasco, open warfare broke out between the tempestuous La Scala musical director, Riccardo Muti, and the equally arrogant Florentine, who is an honorary knight (and noted Anglophile) and a senator in Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party.

"They didn't invite me," said Zeffirelli, explaining his long absence, "and I don't visit houses where I am not wanted. The nice thing about opera is friendship, but with Muti it didn't happen. He kept me at a distance." But Muti is long gone now, defenestrated by a coup of orchestra and backstage staff in 2005, and Zeffirelli was lured back by his successor, Stéphane Lissner.

Zeffirelli staged his first production of Aida at La Scala 43 years ago, but despite the weight of the years and a gammy leg, the grand old man of Italian theatre and cinema has succeeded in dragging La Scala back into the centre of Milan's cultural life.

Nor is the production a flash in the pan: a Traviata in Rome, a Nabucco at Verona's Arena and a Pagliacci in Moscow await him in the coming year. "At my age," he said, "you either go to a retirement home or you plough on."