Zeffirelli still runs the show, grandly

 ROME — Few Italians since Fellini have had such an impact in the United States as Franco Zeffirelli, from his flower-child-era film of “Romeo and Juliet” to his opulent productions at the Metropolitan Opera.
       As he himself is the first to note: “I am very much loved,” Zeffirelli said matter-of-factly in a recent conversation. “Eleven top productions at the Met.”
       Zeffirelli — or the maestro, as he is known — is 86 now, but his face looks decades younger, and his eyes still have a mischievous glint. On a sweltering recent afternoon, he held court on the veranda of his villa on the Appian Way, now an Elysian Field for the heroes of the dolce vita years. Several well-groomed dogs milled about, barking. Across the lush garden, guests lounged in the cabana by the pool.
       For decades, his films — including “The Taming of the Shrew” (1967), with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and “Hamlet” (1990), starring Mel Gibson — have helped make Shakespeare accessible, while his productions of “La Boheme,” “La Traviata” and other Italian operas have kept audiences coming to the Met, which in 2008 honored him with a gala.
       Critics, however, have routinely panned his work as “tawdry,” “inflated” and “elephantine,” saying his elaborate sets dwarf the singers. Donal Henahan of The New York Times once referred to Zeffirelli’s career as “one of the great excess stories of our time.” The Met has replaced some of his productions in recent years, including “Tosca.” A new version directed by Luc Bondy will open the Met’s season this fall.
       Yet viewed from Italy — where less is never more — his style seems less over-the-top. At once conservative and campy, he is a central figure in the history of Italian postwar taste, an intriguing nexus between the glory years of Anna Magnani and Maria Callas, the Berlusconi era and the Vatican.
       He is famously provocative about all three.
       The sex scandal that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been embroiled in since May, when his wife announced she wanted a divorce and accused him of cavorting with very young women? “What is the scandal?” Zeffirelli said dismissively. “I think it’s a joke. It’s ridiculous.” “I know that Berlusconi is a man that likes a lot women,” he continued. “I met him when he was a very strong and efficient lady-chaser in the ’70s. When he started he was a very cute boy who couldn’t resist having sex behind doors.”
Zeffirelli is exceedingly sniffy about more avant-garde productions and the critics who admire them. “They destroyed the tradition of musical culture,” he said. “They said, ‘Ah, we can’t have Tosca done the same way,’ but the audience loves it.”
       He blames critics for opera’s shrinking audience. “It’s like somebody decides that the Sistine Chapel is out of fashion. They go there and make something a la Warhol,” he said. “You don’t like it? OK, fine, but let’s have it for future generations.”
       For years he has tried to drum up interest in a foundation in Florence to house his own work and material he accumulated in his productions.
       Zeffirelli’s taste recalls the opulence of the Roman Catholic Church, and he has coordinated spectacles for the Vatican, including a production of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” in St. Peter’s Basilica in 1970.
       But the maestro is not completely enthusiastic about the current pope, Benedict XVI. “When they elected him, I felt the church was making an image error,” he continued. “Catholic is another thing,” he said. “It’s open, it’s theatrical, it’s flashy.” He waved his hands for effect. “When you have to deal with the Vatican — St. Peter’s, ‘The Last Judgment’ of Michelangelo — you have to be larger than life, you can’t be a professor from north Germany.”
       In fact, the pope, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, is a theologian from Bavaria, southern Germany. “Theologically,” Zeffirelli added, he is “a wonderful man.” The maestro, who in 1977 directed the television miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth,” said he remained a devout Catholic. “There are some doubts about the Virgin Mary,” he said ruminatively. “But not him.”
       As portrayed in his semi-fictional 1999 film, “Tea With Mussolini,” starring Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright and Cher, Zeffirelli, born in 1923, was the product of an out-of-wedlock liaison. His mother, who owned a high-end dressmaking shop, was widowed when he was a boy. He knew his father only “in flashes,” he said. “I remember this gentleman came, especially at night. I woke up and saw this shadowy man naked in bed with my mother.”
       Back then, children of “unknown” fathers were assigned surnames starting with a different letter each year. Because he born in the year of “Z,” his mother named him after a Mozart aria with the word zeffiretti, or little zephyrs. A transcription error rendered it Zeffirelli.
       He studied architecture at the University of Florence but loved theater. In the late 1940s, the director Luchino Visconti spotted the blond, blue-eyed Zeffirelli working as a stagehand in Florence. “I begged him, I showed to him my designs as a set designer, that was my dream,” Zeffirelli said.
       His first big break was in 1949, designing the set for the first Italian production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” directed by Visconti. “There were lots of stories of Visconti and myself and the relationship that developed,” Zeffirelli said. “But the quality of my work did not authorize anybody to doubt my serious professional preparation.”
       He lived with Visconti for three years. In his 2006 autobiography Zeffirelli writes that he never liked to discuss his personal life, but that he considers himself “homosexual,” not “gay,” a term he considers less elegant.
       Several years ago, Zeffirelli adopted two adult sons, men he has known and worked with for years who now live with him, dote on him and help manage his affairs.
       The afternoon was turning to evening. His adopted son Luciano helped him walk through the garden to a bench more suitable for a photo shoot.    The maestro was still directing. “In the story,” he said, turning to this reporter and rubbing his fingers together as if pinching salt, his face wincing in the evening glow, “make it alive, make it alive.”

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