July 18, 2019

Franco Zeffirelli: The 9 Films and Operas That Defined a Director

Franco Zeffirelli: The 9 Films and Operas That Defined a Director


Franco Zeffirelli, the Italian director known for his sumptuous films and stage productions, died on Saturday at 96. [Read the Times obituary.]

The critics sometimes found his work overstuffed, with more attention paid to décor than to human beings. But audiences ate it up for decades. Here are some of the highlights from an extravagant career:

If there is a signature Zeffirelli opera, it may well be Puccini’s “La Bohème.” His staging from 1963 is still in the repertoire of the Vienna State Opera and Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, and the Metropolitan Opera’s pharaonic 1981 production remains untouchable.

If you want to see opera that goes over the top of the top, this is it, with a huge, multistory set and, at its fevered peak, hundreds of people crowding the stage, taking realism almost into surrealism.

There was an outcry when Mr. Zeffirelli’s “Tosca” was replaced by a stark Luc Bondy staging, but his “Bohème” and the even more ornate “Turandot” (from 1987) are not leaving the Met’s roster any time soon — both can be seen next season.

For his first film outing, Mr. Zeffirelli directed Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, then at peak celebrity, as the combative lovers of “The Taming of the Shrew.”

The result is not nearly as camp as you might expect, and the stars deliver enjoyable performances greatly enhanced, of course, by the knowledge of their real-life tumultuous relationship. As usual with Mr. Zeffirelli, the costumes and sets are exuberantly gorgeous, at times nearly eclipsing the leads.

Mr. Zeffirelli stuck with Shakespeare for his second feature, “Romeo and Juliet” — eight years after he directed the play (with Judi Dench as the heroine) at the Old Vic in 1960.

He shot the film on location in Italy and cast the unknown teenagers Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey as the lovers, giving the film an energy and sensuality that have contributed to its remarkable longevity — a contemporary making-of featurette emphasized the actors’ youth, describing them as “bubbling with fun and part of today’s love generation.” Fun fact: an uncredited Sir Laurence Olivier was the narrator.

Among Mr. Zeffirelli’s most illustrious collaborators was the great soprano Maria Callas. Their 1958 production of “La Traviata,” in Dallas, remains mythical among opera fans. It began with the heroine’s death and unfurled as a flashback, as did Mr. Zeffirelli’s successful 1983 screen adaptation of the opera, starring Teresa Stratas and Plácido Domingo.

“With ‘Traviata’ I never alter my original idea,” Mr. Zeffirelli told The Times in 1989. “The changes are only to polish.”

In 1964, Mr. Zeffirelli and Callas reunited for “Tosca” in London. To immerse himself in that opera’s world, he toured the places in Rome where much of the action is set: the Basilica di Sant’Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese and the Castel Sant’Angelo.

Mr. Zeffirelli’s collaboration with Joan Sutherland started with an intense “Lucia di Lammermoor” in London in 1959 — the performance made the Australian soprano a star. As for the production itself, it was ready to move in: “It looks like a contemporary print of the 1840s,” the Manchester Guardian marveled at the time.

By the mid-1960s, Mr. Zeffirelli’s reputation as an opera visionary was so secure that in September 1966, he opened the Met’s new theater at Lincoln Center, with the world premiere of Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra.” That his relationship with the Met would continue unabated for decades is all the more remarkable because the production is famous for having been plagued by technical mishaps; at one point, the soprano Leontyne Price found herself stuck inside a pyramid, “Spinal Tap”-style.

Among Mr. Zeffirelli’s most idiosyncratic (read: cultishly nutty) projects was “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” a 1973 biopic about the young St. Francis of Assisi. The folk-pop star Donovan contributed songs — after the original hires for the score, Leonard Bernstein and Leonard Cohen, bailed. The result was very much of its time, mixing flower power, faith and poetic flights of fancy.

Still, Mr. Zeffirelli could not help himself, making “the sort of movie that tries to make poverty look chic, and almost goes broke in the attempt,” as Vincent Canby said in his review for The Times.

In 1981, Mr. Zeffirelli returned to the topic of doomed teenage passion — this time across class lines — with the melodramatic weepie “Endless Love,” starring a 15-year-old Brooke Shields. The film overcame bad reviews to score big at the box office, propelled in no small part by its hit theme song, a textbook ballad performed by Lionel Richie and Diana Ross. Musical-theater connoisseurs will be delighted to learn that the film’s score is by Jonathan Tunick, who orchestrated several of Stephen Sondheim’s shows.



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