The Italian director Luca Ronconi, who has died aged 81, was one of the great theatrical innovators of the 20th century. His most recent production was Lehman Trilogy, Stefano Massini’s account of the founders of the Lehman Brothers bank, realised in two parts, Tre Fratelli (Three Brothers) and Padri e Figli (Fathers and Sons), at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan. He had been artistic director there since 1999.
Ronconi’s most revolutionary production, and the one which brought him international renown, was in 1969, a stage adaptation of Ariosto’s mammoth epic poem Orlando Furioso. It was first staged in a small deconsecrated church in Spoleto, at Gian Carlo Menotti’s summer Festival of Two Worlds. Only a small number of people could squeeze into that space, but it was enthusiastically received.
It moved out to a more appropriate venue – the piazza. I saw it and reviewed it from the main square of Bologna, where thousands were able to choose which of Ariosto’s stories interested them and enjoy avoiding the trolleys from which the actors were declaiming the poet’s verses about the warmongering and amorous adventures of Charlemagne’s paladins and their Moorish opponents. The production triumphed in several other European venues, including Amsterdam and Madrid, and took the 1970 Edinburgh festival by storm, staged in an ice rink, with hippogriffs and sea monsters hurtling around on trucks.
Then it moved to New York, where the mistake was made of presenting it in a “bubble” erected in a garden off 42nd Street, where the sophisticated Broadway first-nighters, on a rainy November evening, were angry at being obliged to stand, without a cloakroom to leave their raincoats and umbrellas, and listen to Ariosto’s verses in Italian. Their negative reaction was reflected in the New York Times review the next morning. But the minority who had adored the show spread the word, and younger audiences began to flock to the bubble – too late, however, to permit the show to run beyond the scheduled run. If the bubble had been set up in a garden in Greenwich Village, the story might have been different.
Ronconi’s Orlando reached television in the mid-70s, when a five-part miniseries was filmed under the guidance of the Oscar-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, partly in fantastical reconstructed Renaissance venues designed by Pier Luigi Pizzi at Cinecittà studios in Rome, and partly in authentic historical settings.
Ronconi was born in Sousse, Tunisia. His parents had come from Rome, and after the family went back there, his father left his mother, Fernanda, who settled in Aquila, in the mountains east of the capital, where she worked as a teacher. She soon returned to Rome and would sometimes take Luca to the theatre, but often left him alone at home, where he devoured theatrical classics from her bookshelves. As he was not doing very well at school and the second world war had started, she sent him at the age of 10 to a school in Switzerland, where he felt isolated and only learned a little French and German.
Back in Rome after the war, he managed to get into the academy of dramatic art and graduated after only two years of the three-year acting course. One of the teachers at the academy, the director Luigi Squarzina, gave him a small role in 1953 in his play about the antifascist resistance in Genoa, Tre Quarti di Luna (Three Quarters of the Moon).
During the next decade, Ronconi appeared with several important companies but realised that he found acting boring and that he wanted to direct. He succeeded in 1963 in convincing some actor friends to form a company with him. Their first production was of two short plays, La Puta Onorata and La Buona Moglie (The Honest Maid and The Good Wife), by the Venetian dramatist Carlo Goldoni. I remember enjoying it enormously. So did the critics, and famous Italian actors began to seek him out.
The first was Sergio Fantoni, who appeared in Ronconi’s 1966 production of The Changeling. Ronconi gave it a “theatre of cruelty” treatment, setting the play in a lunatic asylum. It startled but excited the audience. In 1967, Ronconi directed Measure for Measure in the Royal Palace in Turin. In the same city, in 1968, he directed Vittorio Gassman as Richard III. At first Gassman was bewildered by the type of acting Ronconi demanded, and, while he agreed to adapt his usual histrionic style, he refused to wear the exotic costume designed for him.
After a perhaps too esoteric production, premiered at the Venice Biennale theatre festival, of Giordano Bruno’s complex Renaissance drama Candelaio, a play Ronconi would return to more convincingly at the Milan Piccolo, came his feted Orlando Furioso at Spoleto.
In opera, too, Ronconi had many successes (and a few flops). One of his most praised productions was of the Rossini opera Il Viaggio a Reims, the composer’s last in Italian, with Riccardo Muti as conductor, at the Rossini opera festival in Pesaro in 1984. Ronconi started the performance in the streets of the city, where a group of travellers of different nationalities set off on their way to Reims for the coronation of Charles X, which the spectators then watched with them on the stage of the Teatro Rossini.
In 1975, the first night of Utopia at the Edinburgh festival, staged in the same ice rink as Orlando in 1970, had to be postponed for 24 hours when props and costumes were held up. Furthermore, the audience was not happy to sit on wooden planks for more than four hours, but the critics stuck it out to the end of this adaptation of six plays by Aristophanes into one philosophic utopian dream. It received surprisingly rave reviews. For the Guardian, Cordelia Oliver wrote: “The parody and low comedy were easily accessible because brilliantly visual and metaphoric.”
In 1991, the Teatro Stabile di Torino, where Ronconi was artistic director from 1989 to 1994, achieved an Orlando-like success in the Lingotto, a former Fiat factory, with The Last Days of Mankind by Karl Kraus, generally considered “unperformable”. Ronconi found mostly eager and enthusiastic audiences when artistic director of the Rome civic theatre (1994-98).
In 2002, at the Greek theatre in the Sicilian city of Syracuse, his production of Aristophanes’ The Frogs caused some controversy because there were caricatures of Silvio Berlusconi in the set design. Ronconi reluctantly agreed to remove them when the management reminded him that Berlusconi’s government had provided financial support for the organisation.
Ronconi never married, and considered his actors to be his “spiritual heirs”. Above all, this meant Massimo Popolizio, leading actor in most of his productions in recent years. When Ronconi’s death was announced to the audience after the curtain calls for Tre Fratelli, Popolizio, who played one of the Lehman brothers, was seen to be weeping.
• Luca Ronconi, actor and director, born 8 March 1933; died 21 February 2015
• This article was amended on 8 March 2015 to make it clear that Ronconi lived in Rome before going to school in Switzerland, and to make the location of Aquila more specific. The conductor of the 1984 production of Rossini’s opera Il Viaggio a Reims was Claudio Abbado rather than Riccardo Muti.
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