Franco Zeffirelli, Italian director, has died aged 96

Martin Cullingford Mon 17th June 2019

Productions included a Tosca which lasted 40 years at Covent Garden

Director Franco Zeffirelli, here with Maria Callas, has died aged 96 (photo: Bridgeman Images)

Director Franco Zeffirelli, here with Maria Callas, has died aged 96 (photo: Bridgeman Images)

Franco Zeffirelli, the Italian director whose Royal Opera House production of Tosca remained in repertoire for 40 year, has died aged 96.

Prolific across the genres of film, theatre and opera, Zeffirelli worked on 120 productions, forming collaborations with some of the past century’s greatest artists, including Maria Callas. 

Perhaps his love of classical music was inevitable; born illegitimate to parents married to others, his mother based his name on a phrase ‘zeffiretti lusinghieri’ (little breezes) from an aria in Mozart’s Idomeneo (apparently the nurse failed to cross the ts). In a Gramophone My Music interview in 2005, he recalled ‘being fascinated by the miracle of opera’ from childhood, the first he saw being Walküre.

Zeffirelli initially worked as an actor, including under director Luchino Visconti, to whom he subsequently became an assistant director – though always keeping, as he put it, ‘an eye on music and opera’. His debut opera came at La Scala in 1954 with L’italiana in Algeri, sung by Giulietta Simionato and conducted by Giuliani. His Covent Garden debut came in 1959, directing and designing a Lucia di Lammermoor which has been credited with launching Joan Sutherland’s international career, while his iconic Tosca, starring Maria Callas, opened in 1964.

Zeffirelli had first encountered Callas while working for Visconti in Rome, where she was singing Kundry in Parsifal. ‘I became her fan instantly’, he recalled. ‘She was a combination of many perfections. She was an educated lady – the diction and the way she matched the singing voice with the words was unique. Then she had a very special voice, a combination of two completely different voices. She could sing anything in those years. In fact, she did. Reality is a very hard word to define: Callas managed to be absolutely real and believe in her character so much when she was performing that she forgot it was all an artifice. Only extreme professional effort gives you the illusion of total reality.’ His 2002 film Callas Forever paid tribute to his friendship with the soprano.

Zeffirelli's productions tended towards the traditional, grand and dramatically lavish - a perfect example being his Pagliacci, originally designed for Rome and staged at Covent Garden in 2003 starring Plácido Domingo, Angela Gheorghiu and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, conducted by Antonio Pappano, and featuring a cast of hundreds complete with donkey.

Other opera films had included a 1965 La bohème, conducted by Karajan and starring Mirella Freni and Gianni Raimondi, and an Otello in 1986 with Plácido Domingo, something he described to Gramophone as ‘the ultimate of my successes’, uniting as it did his ‘three different careers, three lives: theatre, film and opera’.

Films outside of opera included an influential Romeo And Juliet from 1968, and a star-studded Hamlet from 1990 featuring Mel Gibson, Glenn Close and Helena Bonham Carter. A further film success, Tea with Mussolini from 1999, drew affectionately on his own experience of being brought up among Italian-based English expats. Adding a further facet to his career, in 1994 Zeffirelli also served in the Italian senate for two terms as a member of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party.

Franco Zeffirelli – born February 12, 1923; died June 15 2019 

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