The unforgettable eyes of Nureyev
The unforgettable eyes of Nureyev
Franca Squarciapino often says she started in theatre to overcome her shyness, which she doesn’t seem to have entirely shaken off still today, even after an Oscar and a dozen shows at the Piccolo Teatro, La Scala and Opéra, almost always working alongside her husband, set designer Ezio Frigerio, who passed in 2022. With the perpetually light-hearted voice of someone who prefers to stay out the spotlight, she talks about her artistic relationship with some of the biggest (and most difficult) artists, like Strehler and Nureyev; when she dressed Depardieu and Domingo; her five December 7ths, soon to be six with Don Carlo as the opener of the next season. In the meantime, in September, she will stage Nureyev’s classic, dreamlike Swan Lake, whose staging, like many others by the Russian ballerina and choreographer, was led by the Frigerio-Squarciapino team.
MP Do you remember when you first met Nureyev?
FS The first show we did together was Romeo and Juliet with the London Festival Ballet (1977, Ed). At the time, I was still Ezio’s assistant, and I had to oversee eight tailors. I was constantly coming and going around London to check on their work. And to think Ezio was doing the ballet reluctantly. We had started with Roland Petit, but he bored of it quickly. When we got to Rudolf, it didn’t take much to convince him, also because of the way he was. It was difficult to say no.
MP What was Nureyev like?
FS He was certainly not an easy man, but he loved beauty and the grand shows, also why our relationship was immediately positive. I especially remember his curiosity, the enthusiasm with which he would suggest all sorts of imagery to add. The only important thing for him was that the references were Italian, no matter the era or city. Ezio would patiently explain to him that we couldn’t mix all those elements and that the show was to be set in Verona during a specific time period. He would listen, seemingly hungry for that culture he had always lacked. It was wonderful to watch him in rehearsals, for the strength he displayed. He generally loved costumes, even off the stage. He enjoyed dressing up. He had this house that was a mix of the East and Russia, in which he lived like a Tartar prince. He would always welcome us in warmly. His French housekeeper would insist on making souffles for him, but he would always show up later than he had said, and by then the souffle would have deflated. And so, she would cry in despair.
MP After Romeo and Juliet, you did several other ballets together, first in Paris and then at La Scala.
FS We were all living in Paris, and he called us for Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and La Bayadère, which is perhaps the one that makes me most emotional as it was the last before he died. Opening night, I was with him on stage. By then he was very sick. All that remained of him were his eyes, which I will never forget, because that evening they were so happy. At the end, we were all crying on stage; we were there for him, and we knew he was dying. I, myself, struggled with that production because I had fallen in Turkey and had to oversee rehearsals lying down on a sofa they had prepared for me in the theatre.
MP Are there specific challenges to creating the costumes for a ballet?
FS The reason I love ballet is that you can go a little crazy, invent more fantastic worlds compared to those of opera and plays. Obviously, there are certain rules, for example, in Paris we were scrupulous about the length of the skirts, in part because the ballerinas have to move and in part because there is a certain standard to maintain. Nureyev obviously wanted these grand, ostentatious costumes for himself. You could always take risks with him and do interesting things, while always ensuring that things worked as a whole. You can’t focus solely on the costume of the protagonist.
MP The first show you did for La Scala was in fact a ballet: The Miraculous Mandolin by Bartók, choreographed by Roland Petit, scene design by Josef Svoboda and directed by Claudio Abbado. It was 1980.
FS For that show I had made some padded jackets that then became trendy. Not that I started it, but it was interesting that I began to see them everywhere.
MP By then, you had been the costume designer for many years at the Piccolo Teatro and the Schauspielhaus in Zurich. How did you get started?
FS I was born in Rome, but for family reasons, I grew up in Aquila, a city that was too small for me. I always knew I would leave. I was so shy, so much so that I enrolled in a school for dramatic arts to try and overcome this. I won a scholarship for television in Naples along with other actors like Milena Vukotic and Ugo Pagliai. But I always felt sick performing, and still now I don’t like to show myself. My acting teacher, Miranda Campa, who was like a second mother to me, followed me to Naples to be by my side. She was the one who introduced me to Ezio, who was staying at the same hotel as her. He was there to film Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow with De Sica. When we returned to Rome, he started calling on me. One day, he invited me to visit Ponti’s villa where he was doing some work. When we got back, I saw he had had the car filled with flowers.
MP Did you immediately start working with Frigerio?
FS At the beginning, I only watched, then he learned he could trust me with things. To learn how to draw, I went to drawing school. I had realized that I could like this work. Ezio hesitated, but I insisted. Growing up in Abruzzo with a Sicilian father made me stubborn. So, I became his assistant, and for me it was a tough lesson, harder than it was for his other assistants.
MP The teaching of Strehler was also hard?
FS I learned very important things from both. From Ezio, an understanding of materials and visual culture. We would travel a lot, go to museums and he would explain everything, push me to understand and learn. At the Piccolo Teatro, I followed the rehearsals of Strehler, a difficult character to understand because he was always distant and surly. I always wondered how such a man who was almost incapable of showing feeling could pull them out of actors in such a subtle and intense way. It was truly incredible.
MP One of the most important shows during your time at La Scala were the Mozart operas directed by Riccardo Muti: Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni.
FS Which were very different from each other. After all, every show is its own world, especially for Strehler. Perhaps our Don Giovanni was too gloomy, Ezio would always say. Le Nozze di Figaro, however, was quite sunny, which is a word I don’t like becasue it is often trivialized, but it can’t be defined in this way. Ezio gave so much to that show! I don’t want to take anything away from anyone, but the visual aspect was his. Strehler didn’t know how to read drawings. Every time he saw the built set, he was perplexed because he had imagined it differently.
MP You and Frigerio worked with many other directors other than Strehler, like Othello with Graham Vick for Verdi’s centennial.
FS We got along so well. His was a different kind of theatre. Perhaps he needed a less structured set design than the one Ezio had created for Othello. Another important experience was with Werner Herzog, who came from film. He was an intelligent and nice man. For the performance of Fidelio, we did together he was looking for something very powerful.
MP Speaking of film, we can’t not mention the Oscar you received in 1991, for your first film, Cyrano de Bergerac by Jean-Paul Rappeneau. You and Frigerio were both nominated.
FS It was luck. I was upset for Ezio as his work was misunderstood. They didn’t understand that his set design was completely constructed, invented. They asked us to stay in Los Angeles, but it was a world we had no interest in, where you must make appearances at all costs. It’s like doing hard labour. Ezio never would have lived like that. However, the evening of the Oscars was a truly incredible experience. I found myself there standing before the actors I see in films, young and old, all smiling at me. Very beautiful and very embarrassing.
MP What was it like to dress Depardieu?
FS A battle. He wouldn’t come to rehearsals. He would say, get my brother-in-law and dress him, we’re the same, then my tailor can fix it if necessary. He also drank, so he’d be bigger one day and thinner the next. At the end of the film, I told him I would never do anything else with him. But then he called me for another film (“Colonel Chabert”, Ed.) and he was more disciplined that time.
MP Can you tell us something about Don Carlo with Lluís Pasqual?
FS I have known Lluís since he was a young director. We worked with him in many theatres. Spain was a second home for Ezio and I: Barcelona, Madrid, Seville. I can say that we are imagining a setting that is very Spanish, dark and oppressive. Let’s hope. When you start a show, you must be certain it will go well. Then you grow anxious during rehearsals. But at that point it’s too late. You must prepare yourself better before.
MP Are you doing anything outside the theatre?
FS I am working hard on a museum in Erba, my husband’s city, where we lived in recent years. It was the final wish of Ezio. A museum in Villa Candiani that would hold three collections: Roman busts, a 20 th century picture gallery from Campigli to Guttuso, and lastly our sketches and figurines, to interest younger generations in the theatre trades. Work started this year and will end in 2025. Then we will have to find someone to curate it.
In the picture Franca Squarciapino and Rudolf Nureyev, 1990.