A perfect charmer who could turn on a sixpence into an absolute monster, Franco Zeffirelli had an ego and an energy that transcended both triumph and disaster.
Working across opera, film and theatre, the director – who died this week, aged 96 – lacked the deeper imaginative genius of his similarly wide-ranging mentor (and lover) Luchino Visconti, but his flamboyant visual sense and unabashed showmanship were incomparable.
Essentially a designer – he trained as an architect – Zeffirelli had a painterly sense of an effective tableau. Intense psychological exploration on a bare stage did not interest him; he was not engaged by Visconti's desires to explore the human soul or fight social injustice. His fundamental talent was that of creating spectacle, always constructed on a basis of meticulous realism and historical accuracy, whether the setting was a ballroom in Second Empire Paris or a slum in post-war Naples.
Perhaps the best of his style is exemplified in his realisations of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Puccini’s Tosca. Romeo and Juliet he first staged in 1959 at the Old Vic, with the young Judi Dench as a baby-faced Juliet. Here, exploiting a richness of colour and explosive action new to British theatre of the time, Zeffirelli evoked an unforgettable sense of the street life of an Italian city of the Renaissance.
The excellent film version, made seven years later in authentic locations across Tuscany, also magically reminded us through the ingenuous performances of the exquisitely beautiful Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey us that the two lovers were mere naïve teenagers, living in a world that was hot, dusty and violent.
His 1964 Tosca at Covent Garden was even more miraculous, magnificently painting images of Napoleonic Rome as a frame for stunningly powerful performances by Tito Gobbi and Maria Callas (whose faltering career was briefly revived by her success). A little-known fact is that there were only two weeks of rehearsal for this production: Zeffirelli was no micro-manager of great artists, but he knew how to give them confidence and inspire them to let rip. The production continued in the repertory at Covent Garden for over forty years, and remains unsurpassed.
Elsewhere one might pick out as highlights of Zeffirelli’s oeuvre a gorgeous if stately film of The Taming of the Shrew with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and vivacious stagings of the Neapolitan comedies of Eduardo de Filippo – many will still recall his lovingly detailed 1973 realisation of Saturday, Sunday, Monday at the National Theatre with a cast including his close friends Joan Plowright and Laurence Olivier. A passionate Anglophile, he was always happy working in London with British actors.
In the latter part of his career, Zeffirelli became unstoppably self-indulgent, almost a parody of himself. His ludicrously extravagant production of Puccini’s Turandot at The Metropolitan Opera looked as overstuffed with gift-wrapped candy as Harrods at Christmas, while his films – from the sentimental kitsch that pervaded Jesus of Nazareth to the badly acted melodramatic banalities of Callas Forever and Tea with Mussolini – lacked anything approaching authentic emotion or even honesty.
Despite a barrage of critical hostility and box-office flops, he remained incorrigible: at the age of 82, in 2006, he produced a stupendously vulgar Aida at La Scala that I described in my review as "a breath-taking, jaw-dropping, ear- and eye-popping feast that only cynics or puritans could resist." Less forgiveable were his increasingly twisted right-wing politics (he was a fervent supporter of Berlusconi) and provocatively offensive remarks made to journalists only too ready to egg him on. He was not perhaps a very admirable character, but for sheer bravado, he deserves a place in the pantheon of great post-war directors.