‘Romeo and Juliet’ director Franco Zeffirelli dies at 96
NEW YORK — Franco Zeffirelli, the Italian director renowned for his extravagantly romantic opera productions, popular film versions of Shakespeare, and supercharged social life, died Saturday at his home in Rome. He was 96.
Critics sometimes reproached Mr. Zeffirelli’s opera stagings for a flamboyant glamour more typical of Hollywood’s golden era, while Hollywood sometimes disparaged his films as too highbrow. But his success with audiences was undeniable.
Beginning with his 1964 staging of Verdi’s “Falstaff,” his productions drew consistently large audiences to the Metropolitan Opera in New York over the next 40 years. His staging with Maria Callas of Verdi’s “La Traviata” in Dallas in 1958 and Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca” at Covent Garden in London in 1962 “remain touchstones for opera aficionados and Callas cultists,” Brooks Peters wrote in a profile of Mr. Zeffirelli in Opera News in 2002.
Mr. Zeffirelli’s filming of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” starring the teenage Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, thrilled millions of young viewers who had been untouched by the bard. “I’ve made my career without the support of the critics, thank God,” he told Opera News.
Even for the hyperbolic world of opera, his sets and costumes could seem overdone. In Bizet’s “Carmen,” he populated the stage with horses and donkeys. The headdress he designed for the imperious princess in Puccini’s “Turandot” appeared to be on the verge of collapsing under its own weight. Mr. Zeffirelli’s 1998 revamping of “La Traviata” was savaged by the critics for its overwhelming décor.
“His new look at Verdi’s masterpiece remains waiting and ready for a cast strong enough in personality to compete with its director’s illusions of grandeur,” Bernard Holland wrote in The New York Times. Nonetheless, performances of the opera sold out.
Some divas adored Mr. Zeffirelli despite his reputation for focusing too much on the staging. Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves recounted how he helped her create an interpretation of the headstrong gypsy in his 1996 production of “Carmen” that was hailed for years.
Mr. Zeffirelli convinced Graves that unlike the conventional view of Carmen as a carefree, liberated woman, she in fact lacked confidence and feared losing her freedom by falling in love.
“It began to open a window in my mind that I didn’t know existed,’’ Graves told the Times in 2002. “From that moment on, I had to relearn and rethink everything. I felt that I had no idea who Carmen was. It changed my singing completely. And that was just in the first five minutes.”
A whirlwind of energy, Mr. Zeffirelli found time not only to direct operas, films, and plays past the age of 80 but also to carry out an intense social life and even pursue a controversial political career. He had a long, tumultuous love affair with Luchino Visconti, the legendary director. He was a friend and confidant of Callas, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Coco Chanel, and Leonard Bernstein.
Twice elected to the Italian Parliament, Mr. Zeffirelli was an ultraconservative senator, particularly on the issue of abortion. In a 1996 New Yorker article, he declared that he would “impose the death penalty on women who had abortions.” He said his extreme views on the subject were colored by the fact that he himself was born out of wedlock despite pressure brought to bear on his mother to terminate her pregnancy.
Franco Zeffirelli was born in Florence on Feb. 12, 1923. His father, Ottorino Corsi, was a respected wool and silk merchant but inveterate womanizer, and his mother, Alaide Garosi, was a fashion designer who owned a dressmaking shop. Both were married to others at the time.
By one oft-told account, Mr. Zeffirelli was named by his mother. In those days in Italy children of purportedly “unknown” fathers were assigned surnames starting with a different letter each year. He was born in the year of Z. His mother chose Zeffiretti, drawing on a word, meaning little breezes, heard in an aria in Mozart’s opera “Cosi Fan Tutte.” A transcription error, however, rendered it Zeffirelli. One problem with the story is that “zeffiretti” does not appear in the libretto. “Aurette,” breezes, does.
He was taken to his first opera by an uncle at age 8 and was so smitten by stage design that while his friends played games after school, he buried himself in his cardboard scenes for Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs.”
His interest in Shakespeare was awakened by an older British woman, Mary O’Neill, who tutored him in English as a child and imbued him with ethical values that foiled the Fascist curriculum served up at school. “She kept injecting in me the cult of freedom of democracy that remained in my DNA for the rest of my life,” Mr. Zeffirelli told Opera News.
She and her expatriate friends in Florence became the subjects of “Tea With Mussolini” (1999), his acclaimed autobiographical film starring Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, and Judi Dench.
He went on to study architecture at the University of Florence, until the onset of World War II interrupted his education. He joined Communist partisan forces, first fighting Mussolini’s Fascists and then the occupying Nazis. Captured by the Fascists, he was saved from the firing squad when his interrogator miraculously turned out to be a half-brother whom he had never known. The half-brother arranged his release.
After the war he resumed his architecture studies, but theater remained his abiding interest. In the late 1940s, director Luchino Visconti spotted Mr. Zeffirelli working as a stagehand in Florence. “I begged him, I showed to him my designs as a set designer, that was my dream,” Mr. Zeffirelli said.
Visconti gave him his big break in 1949, making him his personal assistant and set designer for his production of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the first staging of the play in Italy.
The two became romantically involved. In his autobiography, published in 2006, Mr. Zeffirelli wrote that he considered himself “homosexual,” disliking the term “gay” as inelegant.
In 1960, at London’s Old Vic, Mr. Zeffirelli directed a very young Judi Dench in a celebrated “Romeo and Juliet.” But it was the film version, released in the United States in 1968, that achieved superstar status for the director. Costing a mere $1.5 million, the film grossed more than $50 million.
“From Bronx to Bali, Shakespeare was a box-office hit,” wrote Mr. Zeffirelli.
Also extremely popular were his film adaptations of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” (1967) with Taylor and Burton, and “Hamlet” (1990) starring Mel Gibson.
Mr. Zeffirelli scored further successes with film versions of operas, including “Otello” (1986), with Plácido Domingo. His “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” (1973), depicting the life of St. Francis, and the television miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth” (1977) also drew huge audiences, if not always critical acclaim.
He did suffer a few memorable disasters. His 1963 directorial debut on Broadway — a production of Alexandre Dumas’ “The Lady of the Camellias,” starring Susan Strasberg — closed after four evenings. His production of Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” a world premiere which inaugurated the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966, “entered the annals of famous flops,” Times critic Anthony Tommasini wrote in 2003.
But these setbacks could not obscure his very considerable triumphs. When asked in 2002 why Mr. Zeffirelli’s production of Falstaff had endured at the Metropolitan Opera for almost four decades, Joseph Volpe, the Met’s general manager, replied:
“Now, it may be said by those great minds in the opera world, ‘Can’t the Met do any better than this?’ My answer is: ‘We don’t want to do better than this. As far as I’m concerned, this is the best.’”