Looking Back At The Life Of Franco Zeffirelli
Don’t get me started on a lot of opera productions today.
If you are of a certain age, then maybe you’re tired of seeing Carmen or Othello dressed in clothes that could have come from the thrift store on Indianola Avenue (where I shop) or the one crumbling wall of masonry onstage that’s supposed to represent Seville in the 19th century or Egypt in the time of the pharaohs.
If you are on the young side and you want to live excess and sumptuousness in opera and film, seek out the work of Franco Zeffirelli.
The Italian-born director and designer died last week at the age of 96.
Zeffirelli didn’t know from minimalism, and probably used budgets for target practice. He was the master of grandezza. Zeffirelli listened to the music of Mozart, Verdi, Bizet and Puccini and heard the architecture behind the notes. I mean buildings, literally.
Look at this production of Tosca for the Metropolitan Opera in 1986. Act I is set in the church of St. Andrea della Valle in Rome. It’s onstage, but can you smell the incense? Do you feel the authority of the procession?
Zeffirelli was asked to open the new Metropolitan Opera house in 1966. There was a new opera, Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra. Huge pyramids dominated the stage. The critics thought they dominated the music, too. But if the Met wanted an event, the Met got an Event.
Everybody loved the Tudoresque Falstaff that Zeffirelli directed in 1964, complete with the Merry Wives of Windsor’s washing hung out to dry.
But for real excess, nothing beats Zeffirelli’s 1983 production of Puccini's Turandot. Ancient China never looked like this.
Zeffirelli’s career began when he was the paramour of the Italian nobleman and film director Luchino Visconti.
Eventually Zeffirelli too made his mark in cinema. Romeo and Juliet, with Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, remains one the most beautiful-looking of all films.
Thirty-five years ago, I saw Zeffirelli directing in the Met on a Tuesday afternoon. Present onstage were 100 people for Verdi’s La traviata. Present in the auditorium were hardworking technical staff. Zeffirelli himself was chain smoking (smoking in the Met!) and sipping scotch. His dog Bambina was peeing on seats and being adorable. By the end of the afternoon, the Met had a gorgeous new Traviata.
In later years, Zeffirelli was elected to the Italian parliament. He espoused an alt-right philosophy and called for women who had abortions to face the death penalty.
Zeffirelli was controversial beyond his life in politics. Screenwriter Bruce Robinson and actor Johnathon Schaech have said that Zeffirelli sexually abused them when they were young actors working with the director.
Opera, film and TV. In the theater, Zeffirelli directed plays by Albee and Shakespeare. He made a movie of The Taming of the Shrew with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and Jane Eyre with William Hurt. (And the endless Endless Love with Brooke Shields.)
For me, the director’s masterpiece is the TV miniseries from the late '70s Jesus of Nazareth.
He had asked his muse, Maria Callas, to play Mary Magdalene. It didn’t happen. The role went to Anne Bancroft. The production is grand, exciting and timeless – as was its director.