Too Much of a Good Thing is Wonderful

Franco Zeffirelli, 90-years young and going strong(Photo: Alexey Yushenkov/Wikipedia)
Franco Zeffirelli, 90-years young and going strong(Photo: Alexey Yushenkov/Wikipedia)

Happy 90th birthday to Franco Zeffirelli!

Nowadays there’s a trend in the theater and in opera for minimalist sets and costumes, or none at all. Shakespeare in modern dress with a backdrop and two or three chairs; Verdi’s La Traviata on a red cyclorama and a couch, no trace of the decadence of Paris, circa 1850. Wonderful! the marketers cry. We are restoring the integrity and the text with this minimalist style.

Baloney. In my day it was called cheap.

Zeffirelli is the last gasp of visual decadence for the stage. His productions are filled with acrobats, animals, and people of all shapes, sizes and  miens.Forget the final act of Carmen in the toreador’s dressing room with a few curtains and a statue of the Virgin Mary. Franco gives us the bill ring, the corrida outside the ring. You can almost smell the humanity.

Here’s a clip from a Zeffirelli favorite, his 1967 film of The Taming of the Shrew. Kate and Petruchio were played by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, at the height of their notoriety.

Zef’s films include Romeo and Juliet, Brother Son and Sister Moon, his life of St. Francis; Jane Eyre; Hamlet; The Champ and a disastrous biopic of Maria Callas.

In opera, more is better. Zeffirelli understood that opera was about opulence. His production of La boheme has long been a tourist attraction.

Such was Zeffirelli’s fame that he is the only person ever allowed to smoke in the auditorium of the Metropolitan. This writer saw him in rehearsal, smoking, arms ablaze with a glass of scotch handy and his two dogs roaming the theater. This occured while directing a stage filled with choristers, giving each person their own identity separate form the other. They didn’t have to wear their own clothes in performance, either.

Bravo Franco! His career began with Tennessee Williams in Rome in 1948. May it continue forever.