Medical Tuesday Blog
Franco Zeffirelli, the director of spectacular operas, plays and films Died on June 15th at 96
Obituary | The Economist | Print Edition | June 22, 2019
THE FIRST time Franco Zeffirelli felt he was a special person was in the late 1940s, when he was in his 20s. Slim, blond and blue-eyed, he could smoulder like Montgomery Clift, all charm and corner-of-the-eye looks. People panted round him to get his favours, of one sort or another. He was merely playing small roles in theatre then, and painting sets, but he began to hear a buzz about him, a murmur of “Zeffirelli!”, even from the gallery seats.
The buzz persisted, and it grew, until in his early 40s—and still very good-looking—he knew real fame. Not, however, for acting, but for a decade of sensational productions in opera, theatre and film. His “Traviata” in Dallas in 1958 crowned the career of Maria Callas, now the most tear-inducing Violetta of them all, and his “Lucia di Lammermoor” the next year at Covent Garden launched the rise of Joan Sutherland, pulling out every dramatic stop in robes that shone with blood. His staging of “Romeo and Juliet” at London’s Old Vic theatre in 1960, with very young actors, was a wild success, and the film he based on it in 1968 was loved the world over, bringing a new generation to Shakespeare. His “Taming of the Shrew” the year before was a hit too, with Richard Burton and Liz Taylor both backing it and funding it, though they were so riotous on set that he could barely direct them. And for his six-hour TV film “Jesus of Nazareth”, his take on the life of Christ—to him, his best work—stars flew in from Hollywood to beg to be cast
Opera, theatre, cinema: he could do them all. He was like a sultan with three wives, who while making love to one would think “Next time I have to try the other one.” Critics sniffed, as if a man should attempt only one thing in life. But for the public the name “Zeffirelli” was a magic thing. It meant splendour, sometimes on a massive scale: the Arena at Verona seething with white horses and Spanish dancers for “Carmen”, or “the Aida of Aidas” he staged there in 2006, with a huge gilded pyramid looming over a cast of hundreds. It meant no detail overlooked; no heartstring left untugged. “Too beautiful,” some said of his work. . . Beauty, spectacle and Zeffirelli went together.
Yet his name had once meant almost nothing. He was illegitimate, and his mother, obliged to conceal his father, had meant to call him “Zeffiretti”, little breeze, after a Mozart aria. A clerical error made him what he was. . . After his mother’s death, when he was six, a cousin he called Aunt Lide brought him up. She stayed with him like a mother until she died, perhaps the only love, . . he believed he could fully trust.
His greatest love, though, hitting him right in the forehead and the heart, was for Luchino Visconti. After they met, when he was still a bit-part actor and Luchino the leading director in Italy, Luchino got him better roles and made him his assistant on “La Terra Trema” and “Bellissima”, films in the neo-realist style. For several stormy years they lived together. He hated the word “gay” because it lacked virility, but was happy to be Luchino’s “creature”, enthralled by his talent, his teaching and his scented patrician ways. Not least, Luchino taught him how to lose his temper explosively, effectively—and then, in an instant, be charming again.
Charm certainly helped with the divas he met. He became one of Callas’s rare confidants. . . It was he who suggested that she ought to try a lighter repertoire, and who tailored her triumphant Covent Garden “Tosca” in 1964 to reflect the strains in her own love-life.
This article appeared in the Obituary section of the print edition under the headline “The pursuit of beauty”
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