Opera Scotland

Franco Zeffirelli Suggest updates

Gian Franco Corsi.

Born Florence, 12 February 1923.

Died Rome, 15 June 2019.

Italian theatre, opera and cinema director and designer. Honorary KBE 2004.

Franco Zeffirelli was a hugely admired director.  In the post-war years he was one of a wave of new Italian cinema directors, others including Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio de Sica, Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti and Pier Paolo Pasolini.  He and his mentor Visconti, more than the others, also worked extensively in theatre and opera, as both director and designer.  Visconti directed  and designed opera at Covent Garden (La sonnambula, Don Carlos, Il trovatore, La traviata).

Zeffirelli, uniquely, directed Italian opera at Covent Garden but also classic plays in English for the Old Vic, later the National Theatre.  His production of Romeo and Juliet with John Stride and Judi Dench in 1961 made a huge impact (and toured to Scotland with different principals).  He later directed two of Eduardo de Filippo's Neapolitan family comedies, Saturday, Sunday, Monday at the National (Old Vic) in 1973 and Filumena in the West End in 1977, both starring Joan Plowright.  Other actors who appeared in these plays included Frank Finlay, Martin Shaw, Laurence Olivier, Colin Blakely, Trevor Eve, Pierce Brosnan and Patricia Hayes.

His work in Britain began in 1959 with the famous staging at Covent Garden of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor with Joan Sutherland.  Later the same year he directed Cav & Pag. He returned to the Royal Opera House in the sixties to direct operatic works by Handel (Alcina),  Mozart (Don Giovanni),  Verdi (Rigoletto, Falstaff) and Puccini (Tosca).  The last of these starred Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi in what would be her final appearances in opera in Britain. The staging was revived regularly over three decades until the opera house closed for rebuilding in the nineties.  Indeed most of those productions were extremely popular in their day.

His early operatic work was at La Scala, Milan, beginning with the bel canto repertoire including Rossini (Il turco in ItaliaLa cenerentola) and Donizetti (Don Pasquale).  In later years he returned to the opera house to direct Verdi (Don Carlos, Aïda) and Puccini (La bohème).  He also directed many times at the New York Met, including Mozart (Don Giovanni), Verdi (OtelloFalstaff); Puccini (Bohème, ToscaTurandot) and Cav & Pag.  He had earlier, in 1958, directed Maria Callas in La traviata at Dallas.  He also directed her final stage performances in Norma at the Paris Opéra (1965).

La Scala and Covent Garden brought two of these stagings to the Edinburgh Festival.

Among his films he had a particular success directing Shakespeare - The Taming of the Shrew with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (1967) was followed by Romeo and Juliet (Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting 1968).  Much later (1990) he filmed Hamlet with Mel Gibson and Glenn Close, shot largely on location in Scotland.  He liked religious subjects, filming a life of St Francis of Assisi, Brother Sun, Sister Moon in 1972 (with Graham Faulkner and Judi Bowker).  In 1977 he filmed a long mini-series for TV of Jesus of Nazareth with Robert Powell.

He also made films of opera including La traviata with Teresa Stratas and Plàcido Domingo (1983), and of Otello, starring Domingo and Katia Ricciarelli (1986).  One of his last films, from 1999, Tea with Mussolini, was in part autobiographical, showing how he developed his love for British and American culture.  A difficult and neglected upbringing was much influenced by a group of British ladies living in retirement in Florence during his childhood (actors in the film included long-term collaborators Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright).  This led to his work with the Italian Resistance and several wartime years as an interpreter with the Scots Guards in Italy.

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