Italian film, theater and opera director Franco Zeffirelli, known for his over-the-top productions, once described a scene of a father reacting to his son’s desire to work in the theater.
“He just broke everything in sight. Having exhausted the china and glass, he opened a drawer and pulled out a revolver, which he started to wave about.
“‘I made you, now I’ll unmake you!’”
The scene was not from one of Zeffirelli’s flamboyant movies or operas. It was from his life.
Zeffirelli, 96, whose life, like his productions, was full of grand characters, outsize passions, temperamental rages and torrid love affairs, died Saturday in Rome.
“He left in a peaceful way" after a long illness, his son Luciano told the Associated Press.
Zeffirelli is most widely known for his films, including the 1968 critical and box office hit “Romeo and Juliet” and a 1990 “Hamlet” with Mel Gibson, among other Shakespeare adaptations. His non-Bard movies included a remake of the classic “The Champ” (1979), with Jon Voight; “Tea with Mussolini” (1999) set in his beloved Florence; and his last feature film, “Callas Forever” (2002), which paid homage to his tempestuous friend, opera singer Maria Callas.
Some of his films drew mixed reviews at best, but his opera productions — with massive, opulent sets and onstage casts sometimes numbering in the hundreds, not to mention including animals — are almost invariably audience favorites in the opera houses that can afford them worldwide. At America’s premier opera venue, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Zeffirelli’s version of Puccini’s “La Boheme” is the most-often presented production in the company’s history.
In 1996 Los Angeles Opera presented his popular production of Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci,” featuring crowd scenes that included acrobats, jugglers, fire eaters and a live donkey.
Critics complained that his stage productions were excessive, but for Zeffirelli, excess was just a starting point.
“They must always tell me, ‘Stop, is enough, is excessive,’” he told the London Observer in 2003. “But I prefer to go berserk. I will never stop!”
At 83, he created his last major, new opera production, his take on Verdi’s “Aida” that opened the La Scala season in Milan, Italy, in 2006. As usual, Zeffirelli designed the sets and costumes, as well as directed, resulting in an extravaganza that the Telegraph in London described as evoking “the grandeur of ancient Egypt in a riot of golden magnificence.”
On opening night, with Italy’s Prime Minister Romano Prodi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the audience, the applause went on for 15 minutes.
“For me, opera is dreams,” Zeffirelli said, “and when I dream I create my own planet.”
He engaged in high-profile feuds and his famous temper didn’t spare even as august a figure as conductor Arturo Toscanini, who caught Zeffirelli’s rage when he interrupted a rehearsal.
In his autumn years, Zeffirelli railed against the nontraditional stagings of young opera directors.
“They say I’m the greatest director of opera in the world,” he told the Independent in 2003. “I’m not the greatest — I’m the only one.”
Even his birth caused a scandal.
Zeffirelli was born Feb. 12, 1923, in the outskirts of Florence. His mother was seamstress and clothes designer Alaide Garosi, and his father was fabric merchant Ottorino Corsi — both of whom were married to others when Zeffirelli was conceived. In fact, Garosi was pregnant with him when she attended her husband’s funeral.
In his 1986 autobiography “Zeffirelli,” he wrote that his parents had “a stormy love affair that scandalized the close community that was Florence sixty years ago.”
His mother meant to give him the name Zeffiretti, meaning “little breezes,” from a Mozart aria, but a clerk misspelled it.
Zeffirelli was 6 when his mother died and he was raised mostly by his aunt. In his second autobiography, published in Italy in 2006 (no English-language version has been published), he revealed he had an early sexual experience with a priest. But Zeffirelli, a lifelong, staunch supporter of the Catholic Church and its hierarchy, did not describe the incident as traumatic.
“Molestation suggests violence and there was no violence at all,” he said in a 2006 Guardian interview.
Although he had several heterosexual affairs beginning when he was 16 — “I was very attractive, very handsome, and a lot of women fell in love with me,” he told the Guardian — his key romantic relationships were with men.
Zeffirelli wrote that he fought on the side of partisans against Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s fascist forces during World War II and was several times in danger. After the war he was planning to have a career as an architect until, in 1945 and back in Florence, he saw the film version of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” directed by and starring Laurence Olivier.
“There was Olivier at the height of his powers and there were the English defending their honor,” he wrote. “I knew then what I was going to do. Architecture was not for me; it had to be the stage.”
He was a lowly 22-year-old assistant scene painter when he met prominent stage and film director Luchino Visconti and they began a nearly decade-long affair. It was a rocky relationship, but through it, Zeffirelli met some of the major stage artists and celebrities of the time, including Callas, Leonard Bernstein, Anna Magnani, Coco Chanel and Tennessee Williams.
And his set designs for productions by Visconti and others brought him notice of his own. His breakout as a director came in 1954 when he was designing sets for a production of Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” (“Cinderella”) at La Scala. When the director became ill, Zeffirelli asked for the job and got it.
His completely revamped production was a “syntheses of past and present, combining 18th-century costumes with a pale, clearly lit palette,” wrote critic Zachary Woolfe in a 2011 London Observer feature. Although Zeffirelli’s stage works are now seen in many quarters as overburdened, he came onto the scene as an innovator.
His stature grew with further productions, especially a 1957 staging in Dallas of Verdi’s “La Traviata,” starring Callas and done as a flashback. And his no-holds-barred 1959 production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” in London made Joan Sutherland a star.
He triumphed in non-opera theater in London in 1960 with a naturalistic production of “Romeo and Juliet” that starred Judi Dench, then 25, and emphasized the sensuality of the relationship. Although several critics hated its break from tradition — he ordered actors to stress the dramatic nature of Shakespeare’s dialogue rather than its poetry — critic Kenneth Tynan in the Observer hailed it as “a revelation, even perhaps a revolution,” and young theatergoers (and non-theatergoers) lined up for tickets.
Zeffirelli then worked with prominent stage actors such as John Gielgud, Maggie Smith, Ian McKellen and his inspiration, Olivier.
His first major film as a director, “The Taming of the Shrew” (1967), was headlined by two of the biggest stars of the time: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
However, for the 1968 film of “Romeo and Juliet” he insisted on casting teenage unknowns Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, in large part because of their beauty. He again emphasized the sensual nature of the relationship, this time to the point of having them mostly nude in a bedroom scene.
The film, much of which was photographed in a warm glow, was a blockbuster and drew critical raves. Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin wrote of “how triumphantly Zeffirelli has infused life and vigor, color and credence, into Shakespeare’s poetic tragedy.”
Some of Zeffirelli’s later films got good notices from critics, especially the two-part “Jesus of Nazareth,” shown on NBC in 1977, and his 1982 film of the Verdi opera “La Traviata. Roger Ebert called his 1990 “Hamlet” with Gibson and Glenn Close “robust and physical and — don't take this the wrong way — upbeat.”
But Zeffirelli never came close to duplicating the critical success of the “Romeo and Juliet” film. His follow-up big screen effort, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” (1972) — a kind of flower-child version of the St. Francis of Assisi story — sparked complaints that he emphasized pretty vistas and people more than meaningful content. His “The Champ” (1979) with Voight and a young Ricky Schroder was generally dismissed as an overwrought sudser.
By the time he made “Endless Love” (1981), he seemed to be in a public feud with Hollywood and his conservative views were coming to bear. “We’re fed up with seeing all the beautiful things in life destroyed,” he said in a 1981 Los Angeles Times Times interview on the set of the film. “I want to restore dignity to sex, after all the exploitation by the (film) industry.”
The movie, starring Brooke Shields, did well at the box office but was roundly trashed by critics.
Perhaps the worst reception he got for a film was the biopic “Young Toscanini” (1988), which was roundly booed at the Venice Film Festival and didn’t get a U.S. distributor. Earlier that year he angered many in the film community when he called Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” ''truly horrible, completely deranged” on religious grounds.
Zeffirelli didn’t just make political statements. In 1983 he first ran for a seat in the Italian Parliament on the Christian Democratic ticket, but lost. He then swore off politics, but as often happened in his life, later changed his mind, running in 1994 on the ticket of the right-leaning Forza Italia party, headed by his highly controversial billionaire friend, Silvio Berlusconi. This time, Zeffirelli won and was reelected in 1996.
He was a staunch defender of Berlusconi through the former prime minister’s many and varied scandals. Zeffirelli told interviewers that Berlusconi bought him his Rome villa where he lived with his many dogs and continued to entertain, though he outlived most of his famous friends. He adopted two adult men as his sons, and they helped him get around after he became unsteady on his feet, due to what he said was a botched hip replacement.
“I shot all the films I wanted to, while I went back to opera whenever I felt vulnerable and in need of reassurance,” he said in a 2013 China Daily interview. “Opera for me has always been a sort of mother figure, the mother I lost when I was six.”
Colker is a former Times staff writer.