Sonja Frisell's lavish staging of Verdi's 'Aida' ends its 35-year-run at the Metropolitan Opera
NEW YORK (AP) — Sonja Frisell was a 9-year-old growing up in England when she saw still photos of “Caesar and Cleopatra,” a 1945 movie starring Vivien Leigh and Claude Rains.
“My mother wouldn’t take me to it because she said it wasn’t a subject suitable for young people,” Frisell, now 85, said by phone from her home in Portugal.
So began the path to her lavish staging of Verdi’s “Aida,” the second-most performed production in the Metropolitan Opera’s 140-year history. Her version, featuring a Triumphal Scene with 272 people and four horses, will be seen for the 262nd and final time on Thursday night. A new version by Tony Award winner Michael Mayer is to open in 2024-25.
Frisell had been fascinated by the story of the Ethiopian princess and Egyptian military captain Radamès since childhood.
“I found out that there was an opera on an Egyptian subject, and I finally managed to see a production in London at the age of 16,” Frisell said. “And when I came home, I told my mother it was terrible and I could do it better and I was going to direct opera.”
Frisell began working at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala in 1963-64 and assisted on Giorgio De Lullo’s “Aida” production from 1971-73. She directed her own staging in Rio de Janeiro in 1986.
That was the same year Bruce Crawford, CEO of the advertising agency BBDO International, became the Met’s general manager. The company was planning a new Franco Zeffirelli production to open in 1988 and be financed by Sybil B. Harrington. Work was in the design stage.
“It was too expensive because Sybil didn’t want to pay any more money than she had already committed, which was a fairly large amount,” Crawford recalled. “He said that his ambition was to outdo the St. Patrick’s Day parade in terms of the participants, and he was going at it with donkeys and horses.”
“He was just too much trouble,” Crawford added. “So I fired him and I had a search done and found that Sonja had done an `Aida’ in Brazil.”
When Frisell and set designer Gianni Quaranta traveled to the Met and presented their images from Brazil, Crawford said they were similar to Zeffirelli’s ideas. Frisell, who had worked with Zeffirelli at La Scala, said the director had attended her Rio rehearsals while in Brazil to scout locations for his movie “Young Toscanini.”
Frisell said the Met told her Zeffirelli’s designs would cost $5 million to build and would take up too much space in the house, where four productions need to be stored simultaneously.
“It’s so big that we would have to close the Met. We couldn’t play anything else,” she recalled Crawford recounted in his conversation with Zeffirelli. “And Franco replied: If you want Franco Zeffirelli’s `Aida,′ you close the Met.‘”
Frisell returned to her home in Munich, and Crawford called her a few days later with the offer.
According to the Met’s figures, she supplemented the six principal singers in the Triumphal Scene with 150 actors, 94 choristers, 62 spears, 41 swords, 31 staffs, 30 bows with quivers, 26 rope manacles, 16 dancers, 15 shields, 14 standards, eight axes, six herald trumpeters, four whips, four clubs and four feather fans.
Frisell’s version premiered on Dec. 8, 1988, with James Levine conducting Leona Mitchell, Plácido Domingo and Fiorenza Cossotto. Her staging lasted about three times as long as each of the previous three, by Margaret Webster in 1951, Nathaniel Merrill in 1963 and John Dexter in 1976.
Just like for some singers, a farewell announcement was premature. Frisell’s “Aida” made what was thought to be a final appearance in March 2019 and the staging by Mayer, who won a Tony for "Hairspray," was to premiere in an opening-night gala on Sept. 21, 2020. But the entire 2020-21 season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic and Mayer's rescheduled for a 2024-25 season that opens with Jeanine Tesori’s “Grounded.”
Frisell’s version was brought back for 15 performances this season and is surpassed at the Met only by Zeffirelli’s 1981 version of Puccini’s “La Bohème,” whose total rises to about 550 by this season’s end.
“It’s sort of a great grand opera spectacle that you don’t get to see much anymore,” said Steven Pickover, who has directed the “Aida” revivals since 2007.
Mayer’s staging, partly stored since 2020 in crates in Newark, New Jersey, has sets by Christine Jones with projections by Michael Grimmer of 59 Productions.
“The audience’s natural concern might be after seeing the spectacle of this `Aida’ what’s in store for them in the next `Aida,‘” Met general manager Peter Gelb said. “Christine Jones and Michael Grimmer are creating an underground world for `Aida’ of catacombs and pyramids and tombs, with projection. The set will be animated in a way that will be extremely dramatic and visually appealing. It's `Aida' underground as opposed to above ground.”
Frisell isn’t worried about her version's demise.
“I don’t expect anybody to remember the name Sonja Frisell in 100 years,” she said, “but I’m quite sure Verdi and Mozart will be remembered.”