by Sam Juliano
Franco Zeffirelli achieved what no other had managed before or since. He scored major successes on the opera stage, in the theatre and the cinema, and eventually brought these forms together to become the greatest director of “opera films” in a prolific run in the 1980’s. Once a student of art and architecture, Zeffirelli reportedly turned to the theatre after watching Olivier’s visually arresting Henry V, and while working as a scenic painter in Florence was hired to work as an assistant director under renowned film director Luchino Visconti, for the film La Terra Trema, released in 1948. Zeffirelli later worked with Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, and in the 1960’s achieved moderate success directing and designing his own plays in New York and London. His special gift was remarkable visual design and he eventually crafted extraordinary sets for the works of Verdi, Puccini, Bizet and Mozart on opera stages and directed some lush period films based on Shakespeare and religious figures. In the latter pursuit Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo and Juliet, a stunningly beautiful color film that has retained it’s popularity in schools and on internet chat boards decades later, featured attractive teens in the lead roles. While that film remains the one the director is principally known for among film fans, he achieved no less a critical success the year before that with another Bard standard, The Taming of the Shrew, which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. In 1973 he again produced visual ravishments with Brother Sun Sister Moon based on the life of St. Francis of Assisi, and then directed a mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth that still hold high ratings when aired today. But Zeffirelli to the delight of the purists has always been a staunch traditionalist. This has endeared him to the brass at the Metropolitan Opera and for those who strongly favor the period trappings and the original intentions of the works’ creators.
The director’s celebrated run of four opera films (two by the master Giuseppe Verdi) was accomplished during a period where he was directing stage productions at the Metropolitan Opera. One of the films, La Traviata, based on one of Verdi’s five irrefutable masterpieces is considered by many if not most as the greatest opera film of all-time, and the one that above all others stands as the model. Featuring the then matinee idol singer Placido Domingo, and a model of operatic intensity, the soprano Teresa Stratas in the leads, the resulting film is a benchmark of sumptuous imagery in the service of what many see today as the most all-encompassing art form. (more…)