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Obituary: Franco Zeffirelli – ‘one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed directors’

Franco Zeffirelli. Photo: Alexey Yushenkov Franco Zeffirelli. Photo: Alexey Yushenkov

The designer and director Franco Zeffirelli, who has died at the age of 96, roamed freely across theatre, opera, television and film to produce some of the most acclaimed stage and screen productions of the late 20th century.

Reviewing his 1986 autobiography, The Stage’s then editor Peter Hepple declared: “If ever there was a 20th-century Renaissance man, it was Zeffirelli, a designer who became an actor. An opera director who turned to plays. And of course a great film director, with, running through it all, a particular affinity for our own Bard of Avon.”

The illegitimate son of a womanising textile merchant father and fashion designer mother, Zeffirelli was born in Florence and spent three years in an orphanage after his mother died when he was six. His feckless father then passed him to an aunt, the retired soprano Ines Alfani-Tellini, and later his secretary, from whom he learned English.

Zeffirelli became involved with acting while still at school, but when his architecture studies at the University of Florence were interrupted by the Second World War, he joined the anti-fascist partisans. Twice narrowly escaping death, Zeffirelli later acted as an interpreter for the Scots Guards.

After the war, he returned to studying architecture, but a visit to see Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film Henry V turned his thoughts towards the theatre and he sought out work as a scenic painter. Apprenticed by Italy’s leading director, Luchino Visconti, Zeffirelli gained valuable experience that fed into his own distinctively luxurious style on stage and screen. So indebted was he to his mentor’s aesthetics that his detractors would later take to dismissing him as Visconti’s “creature”.

An occasional bit player in theatre and film productions, Zeffirelli proved to be a natural actor. His handsome, chiselled patrician features attracted the attention of Hollywood studio RKO, whose offer of a contract and promise of stardom he refused.

His early theatre experience in Italy was as a designer, notably for Visconti’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Salvador Dali’s As You Like It in 1948. Opera duly followed – successes at La Scala, Milan, leading to long associations with the world’s leading opera houses.

‘His theatre credentials were indelibly inked by his 1960 staging of Romeo and Juliet at the Old Vic, pairing John Stride and Judi Dench’

Zeffirelli made his mark in Britain in 1959 with his landmark staging of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor – which made an international star of Joan Sutherland – and an acclaimed coupling of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci for the Royal Opera Company.

His theatre credentials were indelibly inked by his 1960 staging of Romeo and Juliet at the Old Vic, pairing John Stride and Judi Dench. Declared by Kenneth Tynan as “a revelation, perhaps a revolution”, it was seen on Broadway (where Joanna Dunham replaced Dench) and earned Zeffirelli a special Tony award. The Stage hailed his 1961 Othello with John Gielgud for the Royal Shakespeare Company as “a landmark in creative theatre, every aspect being remarkable for imagination, insight and daring”.

His 1964 staging of Puccini’s Tosca with Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi proved no less seminal and stayed in Covent Garden’s repertoire until 2006.

With the National Theatre, Zeffirelli scored hits with Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens as Beatrice and Benedick in a 1965 Much Ado About Nothing (its long-lost television version rediscovered in 2016) and Eduardo De Filippo’s Saturday, Sunday, Monday in 1973. Starring Olivier and Joan Plowright, it transferred to the Queen’s Theatre and was seen on Broadway with an American cast.

Plowright became a regular collaborator, appearing in De Filippo’s Filumena in the West End (1977) and on Broadway (1980), the semi-autobiographical film Tea With Mussolini (1999) and alongside Oliver Ford Davies in Luigi Pirandello’s Absolutely! (Perhaps) at the Wyndham’s Theatre in 2003, which prompted The Stage to say: “Real style returns to the West End… a masterclass in acting, this is intelligent, provocative entertainment.” It earned Zeffirelli an Olivier nomination for his set design.

His film and television work attracted two Oscar and five BAFTA nominations, with his 1982 film of Verdi’s opera La Traviata securing him his sole major international award, a BAFTA for best design and art direction. If juries and critics were begrudging, audiences relished his pairing of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in The Taming of the Shrew (1967), Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting’s Romeo and Juliet (1968) and Mel Gibson’s Hamlet (1990).

A devout Catholic, his faith informed the films Brother Sun, Sister Moon, a poetically pious portrait of St Francis of Assisi (1972) and Sparrow, a sentimental biography of a nun (1993) and, most successfully, Jesus of Nazareth, his 1977 television masterpiece for Lew Grade, co-written by Anthony Burgess and starring Robert Powell.

More disappointing were the indigestibly saccharine blending of boxing with a tug-of-war-struggle over a child by separated parents, The Champ (1979), and Endless Love (1981). Starring a 15-year-old Brooke Shields, it veered dangerously towards soft porn.

Zeffirelli served two terms in the Italian Senate as a member of Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing Forza Italia party from 1994, during which he embroiled himself in controversies over abortion, sexual abuse, anti-Semitism and gay sex. He later came out as homosexual.

Among many international awards, he received an honorary knighthood in 2004.

Gian Franco Corsi Zeffirelli was born on February 12, 1923, and died on June 15. He is survived by his two adopted sons.

BBC’s ‘lost’ Much Ado with Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens rediscovered

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