Farewell Franco Zeffirelli, 96

Farewell Franco Zeffirelli, 96


norman lebrecht

June 15, 2019

He may have been the last man alive to see Mussolini and his mistress hanging by their heels in Milano and the stage of La Scala a mound of rubble. At least, that’s the story he liked to tell and I believed him as he told it to me.

He was evasive about many other things, conservative in his artistic and political views to the point of being almost reactionary, wealthy beyond words and decadent with it – living like a Roman consul in modern times in a villa full of statues and mosaics.

Still, I treasured every moment I spent with him and remember his every word.

Farewell, Franco. It was a great ride.



  • Tony says:

    Should he have been a commie imbecile and boundless queen promoting ideological trash in tasteless operatic productions to better match your expectations of a cleany and politically correct liberal, Mr. Lebrecht? Even to honor the memory of a great artist you sound arrogant, pedantic…

    • Novagerio says:

      Tony: I have to disagree. Norman’s comments are actually rather pragmatic and sympathetic on this one.

    • Wladek says:

      His work for the most part was geared to his audience who seemingly normal in most things
      took flight in this irrational art form .He realized
      the general opera audience was about high c from the tenors and an e for the sopranos ,all else being filler to varying degree.
      .Artists such as Stratas or Vickers often brought reason to the form .
      Everyone it seems likes candy and his audience
      which he understood so well was fed eye candy
      with his staging which some with good reason
      consider at best ridiculous at worse vulgar .
      He was for people of little imagination waiting
      for those top notes..he had a good run.

      • Petros Linardos says:

        Beautiful sets are as much an eye candy as romantic music is an oral candy in opera. Both can be nuanced and sensitive to the libretto. There is way more in Zeffirelli’s productions than opulent sets. Here is an example, quoted from the NYTimes obituary:

        The mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves recounted how he helped her create an interpretation of the headstrong gypsy in his 1996 production of “Carmen” that was hailed for years to come.

        Mr. Zeffirelli convinced Ms. Graves that unlike the conventional view of Carmen as a carefree, liberated woman, she in fact lacked confidence and feared losing her freedom by falling in love.

        “I had never thought of it that way,” Ms. Graves told The Times in 2002. “It began to open a window in my mind that I didn’t know existed. From that moment on I had to relearn and rethink everything. I felt that I had no idea who Carmen was. It changed my singing completely. And that was just in the first five minutes.”


      • Novagerio says:

        You are a complete imbecile.
        Stick to Mariusz Treliński instead, it will perfectly suit your ugly leftist liberal Weltanschauung.

        In the meantime, the history of classical Italian culture has ended with Zeffirelli.

        Oh, and guess what! While you surf dirt on the web in order to satisfy your pitiful life, Zeffirelli managed to sell out Vienna and the Met since the early 60’s!

        • Wladek says:

          My ! my ! such vitriol,but what can you expect
          from someone who believes the death of Zeffirelli is also the death of Italian culture.
          What a bizarre thought…. ” i suggest that
          Italian culture is doing quite well without
          Zeffirelli and will continue to thrive well
          without him and that his contribution to
          Italian culture was not worth a spit in the ocean .

  • Rosana says:

    Beautifully written words.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    I feel very privileged to have experienced live some of his opera productions: La Boheme, Carmen, Don Giovanni… All ravishingly beautifully staged and intelligently directed.

    Some of his productions have been repertory staples for decades, for good reasons – like La Boheme, Vienna 1963 and MET 1981.

    Thank you and RIP.

  • Mark says:

    RIP. Most of his gorgeous productions at the Met have been replaced with mediocre garbage. When Luke Bondy’s hideous Tosca was booed by the audience in 2009, Zeffirelli reportedly said, “I don’t mind being replaced, but not by a third-rate talent”.

    • Monsoon says:

      On one hand, his productions were gorgeous and especially welcoming to first-time opera goers — they defined “grand opera.”

      On the other hand, they were typically superficial and rarely dug into an opera’s themes.

      I was fine with the Luke Bondy Tosca. It attempted to capture the brutality of the period (based on historic events) as well as the opera itself — the second act is pretty freaking dark. Zeffirelli’s lush, warm colors just missed the mark.

      The Met’s reluctance to retire Zeffirelli’s productions has lowered audience standards — they reject any production that challenges them.

      • Yes Addison says:

        The Met hasn’t been all that reluctant to retire Zeffirelli’s productions. There are only two remaining.

        I agree with you on the superficiality. I think the best examples of Zeffirelli’s work came early. Some artists grow; other just…bloat. The last thing I thought was really good was the film of Cav (not the Traviata or the Otello) from 1982 or so. The ’87 Met Turandot was enjoyable on a glitzy-trashy level when it was new, and certainly caught the spirit of its times. I don’t think it’s aged well, though. I’ve heard a lot of bad casts in it, which doesn’t help.

        I didn’t think Bondy’s Met Tosca was good at all, but he wasn’t a third-rate director. Wrong person/wrong piece/wrong house. I suspect he took the assignment and then found he wasn’t very inspired by the work. But the best of Bondy, such as his Turn of the Screw at Aix, was better than anything Zeffirelli had done for a very long time, as he chased scenery applause in the same operas over and over. I’d be surprised if he knew Bondy’s work very well. That was just the dyspeptic commentary of a very old man whose time had passed.

  • Ms.Melody says:

    The last of the giants
    Is gone. He gave a new meaning to opulence. His Boheme and Turandot are MET’s treasures to be cherished.
    RIP great one.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      The great Otto Schenk is alive.

      • Ms.Melody says:

        Unfortunately, his wonderful productions are being replaced by cheap garbage.

        • Robin Worth says:

          I don’t disagree with you entirely, but did not the Met bring back his Boheme after the replacement production failed ?

          • Yes Addison says:

            No. There’s never been a replacement production of the Bohème, although there will be eventually. It’s coming up on 40 years old, showing wear, and no longer fills the house as it used to. It used to be considered “singer-proof.”

            I can’t think of any examples of the Met bringing something back. Not in the years I’ve been following it, anyway. When a new production fails spectacularly, such as the notorious ’92 Lucia (Zambello), they just give it a quiet burial and then try something else new a few seasons later.

          • Petros Linardos says:

            Zeffirelli’s MET Tosca has been occasionally brought back. Peter Gelb has previously stated that he will not replace the Boheme.

          • Yes Addison says:

            I don’t think so, Petros. Their archive shows the Bondy covering all the performances from 2009-2015. Then the new one by McVicar replaced it as of New Year’s Eve 2017. If Zeffirelli’s has been staged anywhere since 2006, it was somewhere else.

            I have heard Gelb say something like “They’d probably kill me if I replaced the Bohème!” which isn’t quite the same as promising never to do it. But how much longer can he be there, given his present age and the age most Met GMs have stepped down? It would make sense if he left that matter to his successor.

          • Petros Linardos says:

            You are probably right about both. I remember a previous season’s program feature two productions of the same work. Maybe it was not a MET program, because I was unable to trace it. But I did trace a public statement by Gelb to the effect that they were considering bringing back the Zeffirelli Tosca after the Bondy production flopped.


            In early 2018 they replaced the Bondy production with a new one, directed by David McVicar, featuring naturalistic sets…

  • Nick says:

    One of the greatest artists and personalities of our Time! Creator of unimaginable beauty and lasting memories. His creations are timeless, as his philosophy and admirable views on life and people.

  • Ms. Melody says:

    Great artist who understood that opera productions should be both musically and visually spectacular.
    His productions always served the text and the music. He did not use great works to resolve or communicate his own issues. Instead, he had profound respect for the composer’s and librettist’s intentions.
    A great and irreplaceable loss of a complete artist.

  • ElizaX says:

    Did I mention that I knew him?

  • Edgar says:

    My experience of Zeffirelli’s Boheme and Turandot, both at the MET, will be a lasting memory. Not only for the stunning visual impact and lavish abundance of his productions, but also for the sense of being overwhelmed by them: at times I felt there was some much going on on stage that I found it hard to pay attention to the music. Regrettably, I have not had the opportunity to see and appreciate more of his boundless artistic output in a live performance. That being said, with Franco Zeffirelli one of the last greats of a now bygone era in opera history has left the stage, and how history will remember him is too early to say…

  • Jonathan Sutherland says:

    Franco Zeffirelli may have had a weakness for the sumptuous and grand but there was also considerable poetry in his stagings. His productions of La Bohème in Vienna and New York were indisputably very beautiful. Many of his stage settings also lasted generations simply because audiences loved them. Egocentric, petulantly iconoclast and unmusical regie theater directors such as Neuenfels, Castorf, Sellars, Bieito or Decker can only dream about seeing one of their productions last beyond two seasons. The proof of the operatic pudding is in the longevity and on this criterion, Zeffirelli was unquestionably primo regista assoluto. Vale Franco.

    • Robin Worth says:

      I saw his Cav (no Pag) at La Scala in 1967 with Fiorenza Cossotto and Karajan -matchless- and his later Cav/Pag at the Met in about 2008 You could tell how his style had evolved over the years and the later production grown out of the earlier one Has anyone portrayed the “rustic chivalry” better? By the way, both houses were full…………..

  • muslit says:

    Good riddance.

  • David Hilton says:

    Although this is a forum primarily concerned with music, this discussion of Franco Zeffirelli’s career and legacy is remiss to leave out any reference to his equally considerable achievements in the world of cinema and especially in theatre. How remarkable that it took an Italian director — a lover of Shakespeare and English literature — to stage the most revolutionary Shakespeare production of its time when he cast the teenage Judi Dench as Juliet and John Stride as Romeo for his ground-breaking production of Romeo and Juliet at the Old Vic in 1961. One might also mention his early championing of Edward Albee. Zeffirelli acquired the European performing rights for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and produced the French and Italian premiere productions of the work, as well as productions in other countries. It will be a long time before we see another true man of the theatre of this calibre.