Franco Zeffirelli Made Subtle, Striking Opera. Until He Exploded.
For decades, the director Franco Zeffirelli, who died on Saturday at 96, was the unabashed emperor of extravagance in opera. He became so associated with unchecked opulence that it’s easy to forget what an astute and fresh-thinking artist he was when he was young.
Stage actors like Judi Dench, and film stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, valued his guidance. Singers who believed fervently in opera as theater, including Jon Vickers, Teresa Stratas and Maria Callas, trusted him entirely.
Indeed, the most complete record we have of Callas on film is a televised 1964 London performance of Act II from Puccini’s “Tosca,” directed by Mr. Zeffirelli. It shows how opera, when rendered with honesty and daring, can be as profound and subtle as any form of drama.
[Here are the films and operas that defined Zeffirelli.]
Mr. Zeffirelli was never small-scale, but he was sensitive, as in the lovingly detailed, freshly rethought Renaissance “Falstaff” with which he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1964.
“To describe this ‘Falstaff’ as a sumptuous production is putting it mildly,” Harold C. Schonberg wrote in his review in The New York Times. “And it also has taste.”
But at some point, Mr. Zeffirelli’s work took a turn. It had been the lavish scenic elements of opera that first captivated him when he was a boy growing up in Italy. That fascination — a fixation, really — began to drive and define his stagings. More than any other director, Mr. Zeffirelli gave rise to the sense that an opera production is all about the set.
During his heyday in the go-go 1980s and still-flush ’90s, Mr. Zeffirelli found willing enablers at the Met. Joseph Volpe, the company’s general manager from 1990 to 2006, wrote in his memoir that a “gasp effect” has always been integral to opera, starting from the early years of the art form in the Baroque era, when audiences expected stage spectacle along with great singing.
The best Zeffirelli shows are in this tradition, and certainly provide gasp-inducing pleasures. One comes at the opening of Act II in his 1981 Met staging of Puccini’s “La Bohème.” Mr. Zeffirelli turned the stage into a teeming street in Paris, with a broad set of stairs leading up to a bustling square and an open-air cafe below — enough space to accommodate some 250 revelers, vendors, mothers chasing rowdy children and, for the finale, a whole marching band.
The “Bohème” bursts with theatrical charm and sheer joy. This past season, it was wonderful to watch a young, gifted cast romping through the onstage garret and leaping around the surrounding rooftops. I’ve seen more interesting productions, but few as enjoyable.
But grandeur could quickly curdle, as in Mr. Zeffirelli’s garish 1987 production of Puccini’s “Turandot.” When the lights rise on the massive courtyard of the imperial palace in this fantasy China, we see expanses of celestial whites, silvers and golds, a glittering spectacle so bright you almost have to squint. The set manages to be at once magnificent and cheap.
“If the gods eat dim sum,” Bernard Holland wrote in The Times, “they certainly do it in a place like this.”
These stagings were not just singer- and conductor-proof. They were drama-proof, almost like a parody of opera.
That the Met’s most crowd-pleasing director had slipped irretrievably into a creative rut became clear with the company’s 1998 production of Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Mr. Volpe thought that time had come to replace a lavish 1989 staging by — who else? — Mr. Zeffirelli with something fresher.
But, unable to find the right director, Mr. Volpe turned again to Mr. Zeffirelli, who gave audiences an even more luridly tasteless take on the work. During the Spanish soiree party scene in Act II, it was hard not to feel bad for the female dancers who appeared dressed as cows in spotted tights, with horn-ribbed headdresses and extra padding in their backsides.
It was the last new production Mr. Zeffirelli would mount in New York. But even as his death marks the end of an era, the farewell to a certain vision of opera, his steroidal aesthetic has kept its hold — some might say its stranglehold — on the Met and its core audience.
Not long after Peter Gelb, Mr. Volpe’s successor at the Met, began his tenure, he decided to mothball the director’s popular 1985 “Tosca,” a production that paid scrupulous attention to the actual locales in Rome where the story unfolds.
On opening night of the 2009-10 season, the Met introduced a grim, sordid new production by Luc Bondy. Greeted with boos, the staging was a fiasco. “Tosca” became a proxy battle in opera circles over traditional approaches — represented by Mr. Zeffirelli’s ornate old staging — and modern concepts like Mr. Bondy’s.
And you know what? When the Bondy “Tosca” was itself replaced on New Year’s Eve 2017, David McVicar’s new production looked suspiciously like Mr. Zeffirelli’s.
Mr. Zeffirelli had won — the battle, if not the war. Even as he stuck stubbornly to a set-is-all, traditionalist style — and a swath of the Met’s audience was stuck there, too — opera was moving on without him.
At the Met, there have been thrillingly contemporary productions that combine scenic wonder with incisive interpretations. Robert Carsen’s splendid “Falstaff” places the story in post-World War II England; Patrice Cheréau’s “Elektra” delved into the subtleties of its characters’ twisted minds.
Mr. Cheréau’s milestone 1976 staging of Wagner’s “Ring,” for the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, was the grandfather of all those stagings. Presenting the work as a metaphor of heedless ambition during the Industrial Age, not a spectacle of horns and breastplates, this production, among many others like it, showed that opera could be insightful, keenly dramatic, responsive to its performers, and still breathtakingly beautiful.
Mr. Zeffirelli once knew this.