OPERA NEWS - Franco Zeffirelli, 96, Famed Italian Director Whose Opulent Productions Thrilled Audiences, has Died
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15 June 2019

Franco Zeffirelli, 96, Famed Italian Director Whose Opulent Productions Thrilled Audiences, has Died

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FRANCO ZEFFIRELLI DELIGHTED in his opera productions’ being described as “Zeffirellian.” His aesthetic sense extended far beyond opera to cinema, acting and his public image.

In many ways, this director/designer/filmmaker/ politician/writer, who died in Rome on June 15 at the age of ninety-six, was the last of his kind. His productions at the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, the Arena di Verona, Covent Garden and elsewhere thrilled audiences with their opulence but dismayed some critics and purists, who felt that the grand spectacle overwhelmed the music and the dramaturgy. Donal Henahan in The New York Times once referred to Zeffirelli’s career as “one of the great excess stories of our time.”

Many of Zeffirelli’s earlier productions, such as his 1959 Lucia di Lammeroor (with a young Joan Sutherland) and his 1964 Tosca (starring Maria Callas in the twilight of her career and Tito Gobbi in his prime)—both at Covent Garden—focused more on details of character than on the enormous scale of the scenery. Zeffirelli’s productions evolved to embrace an almost photographic realism, as if his scenery were meant to be filmed. 

Most of his opera productions were ultimately preserved on video, although none of these could approximate the impact of seeing them in a theater, where their colossal size filled every inch of a stage’s width, height and depth, making the proscenium arch serve as a frame for an unforgettable work of art—one that often was so engrossing that it distracted from the actual progress of the story.

Zeffirelli’s birth and childhood could be the subject of an opera. His mother, Alaide Garosi Cipriani, was married to a lawyer with whom she had three children. She also owned a clothing shop on Florence’s fashionable Piazza della Repubblica. Into her store came Ottorino Corsi, a handsome, impeccably dressed textile salesman, who was also married. They had a passionate affair that led to her pregnancy and caused a scandal among Florence’s genteel classes.

Before the baby was born, Cipriani’s husband suddenly died, leaving her a widowed mother of three with another on the way. Things became more complicated when Corsi refused to acknowledge paternity. At that time in Italy, an “illegitimate” child was assigned a last name based on a continuous rotation through the letters of the alphabet. For this baby, the letter was “Z,” and his mother decided to name him Gianfranco Corsi Zeffiretti, because she liked the aria “Zeffiretti lusinghieri,” from Mozart’s Idomeneo. The person who wrote the name down on the official document did not cross the Ts; as a result the boy was named Zeffirelli.

When Franco was six, his mother died of tuberculosis. With his biological father refusing to acknowledge him, Zeffirelli became an orphan. In a twist of fate that would mark his entire life, he came under the protection of the Scorpioni (the Scorpions), a group of expatriate Englishwomen who chose to commune with Florence’s artistic treasures despite the fact that Great Britain did not have good relations with Fascist Italy. One of the women was Mary O’Neill, who took an interest in the boy’s education, teaching him English language and literature, especially Shakespeare. (O’Neill was the model for the character Mary Wallace, played by Joan Plowright in Zeffirelli’s semiautobiographical 1999 film Tea with Mussolini.)

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DESPITE HIS TURBULENT BEGINNINGS, Zeffirelli acquired a superb aesthetic education. The Scorpioni took him to all of the art treasures of Florence, and he developed a deep passion for visual arts, architecture and design. He also attended the school at the San Marco monastery, where Savonarola had once presided. Zeffirelli learned Italian literature and read classical texts in the original Greek and Latin. He frequented the nearby Accademia gallery (where Michelangelo’s David is exhibited), Medici palace and the basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore, whose famous dome by Brunelleschi Zeffirelli found so compelling that he decided to make architecture his major course of study. His time at San Marco also awakened in him a deep Catholic faith and, at the same time, his homosexuality. He lived openly as a homosexual (he rejected the word gay) for his entire adult life. 

In effect, the education and cultural formation of Franco Zeffirelli was that of a young man in Renaissance Florence, with the additional benefit of learning the English language and its literary masterpieces. During World War II, he fought alongside the British against Mussolini’s forces, but unlike many Italians who opposed Fascism, he did not embrace left-wing politics. He mistrusted Italian communists and embraced a stance that, through decades of ever-shifting Italian political definitions, could be called center-right. In addition to his directing career, he was a senator from 1996 to 2001, as a member of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. He served on committees focusing on defense, labor, education, the environment and cultural affairs.

In the late 1940s, while studying architecture in Florence, Zeffirelli worked as a scenic assistant in a theater. There, he met Luchino Visconti, Italy’s foremost director of theater and opera, who happened to be a descendant of the noble ruling family of Milan. Zeffirelli showed Visconti some of his architectural and theatrical designs, which led to an invitation to create the scenery for the first Italian production of Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Visconti in 1949.

The two men became lovers, and Zeffirelli moved into Visconti’s Roman villa. He became Visconti’s acolyte, assistant and then collaborator in theater, opera and film, learning the craft of producing and directing from a master. Through Visconti, he met many of the great artistic figures of his time in Italy and England, including Maria Callas, Anna Magnani and Laurence Olivier. After breaking up with Visconti in the mid 1950s, Zeffirelli had the preparation, culture and ambition to pursue a solo career as a director.

During that decade, Zeffirelli directed opera productions for regional Italian theaters. His international breakthrough came in London with Sutherland and then Callas; at this time, he was also directing many Shakespeare productions in the U.K., including a popular 1960 Old Vic staging of Romeo and Juliet that starred the young Judi Dench and an unsuccessful Othello at Stratford with John Gielgud in 1961. At the invitation of Olivier, Zeffirelli directed National Theatre stagings of Much Ado about Nothing, with Maggie Smith (1965), and Eduardo di Filippo’s Saturday, Sunday, Monday, with Olivier and Joan Plowright (1973).

Zeffirelli’s gifts in design, Shakespeare and Italian opera led to an invitation from the Metropolitan Opera to create a new production of Verdi’s Falstaff in 1964, to be conducted by Leonard Bernstein, also making his Met debut. Critics admired its decorative but faithful designs in the English style and its traditional but sensible staging.

Zeffirelli’s next Met assignment was a prestigious coup. With the new Metropolitan Opera House scheduled to open at Lincoln Center in 1966, Zeffirelli was asked to write the libretto (in English) for Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, another work with a Shakespearean theme. He would also design and direct the production, which starred Leontyne Price and Justino Díaz. Technical problems with the ambitious scenery, combined with the world premiere of an opera at the opening of one of the most important theaters in the world, conspired to make the event fall far short of expectations.

ZEFFIRELLI PUT OPERA ASIDE for a couple of years after that, adapting Shakespeare for the movies with Taming of the Shrew (1967, with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) and a hugely successful Romeo and Juliet (1968), then turned toward religion with Brother Sun, Sister Moon, about St. Francis of Assisi (1972), and the television mini-series Jesus of Nazareth (1977). His later films included Young Toscanini (1988), Hamlet (1990) and Jane Eyre (1996).

Zeffirelli made films of La Traviata (1982) and Otello (1986) that were created directly for cinemas rather than being documents of stage productions. The former was successful primarily because the director kept his camera focused most of the time on Teresa Stratas’s unforgettable performance. The latter film, despite a strong cast led by Plácido Domingo in his prime, was a failure because of the liberties the director took with the opera. (More than half an hour of Verdi’s opera was cut.)

Ultimately, Zeffirelli would design and direct nine more landmark productions for the Met, all but two—Carmen and Don Giovanni—operas by Italian composers. The achievements for which he will most be remembered are the Puccini trilogy of La Bohème (1981), Tosca (1985) and Turandot (1987). Each production had more jaw-droppingly impressive design elements than the one before. Whether it was a Parisian square, a Roman church or a Chinese palace, audiences erupted in cheers at the sight of them. 

Zeffirelli’s Bohème is the most frequently performed production in Met history. As of January 2019, the Zeffirelli staging had been presented by the Met 486 times in New York and on tour, and it will return to the Met stage in the 2019–20 season. The Zeffirelli Bohème was telecast on Live from the Met in 1982 and reached millions of opera-lovers internationally when it was offered in Live in HD simulcasts in 2008, 2014 and 2018. 

With Zeffirelli’s passing, an era and an aesthetic have come to an end. It is unlikely that any future artist in the field will possess his level of erudition, so deeply rooted in the classical arts that are the foundation of opera. spacer 

Fred Plotkin writes frequently about the arts and travel. 

Portrait credit: Colette MASSON/KIPA

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