Oscar-Nominated Italian Director Franco Zeffirelli Dies at 96

The world of film has lost a true legend today, as Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli passed away at the age of 96. Throughout his illustrious career, Zeffirelli directed numerous acclaimed productions, including the iconic 1968 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, which featured a young Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in their breakout roles. Zeffirelli also worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, directing Elizabeth Taylor in Taming of the Shrew and Dame Judi Dench on stage in Romeo and Juliet. In addition to his filmmaking career, Zeffirelli served in the Italian senate for two terms, cementing his place as one of Italy’s most beloved cultural figures. He will be greatly missed by his many fans around the world.

Despite Bernard Holland’s critique of Franco Zeffirelli’s staging of Verdi’s masterpiece, the opera remained incredibly popular and sold out. While some may have agreed with Holland’s assessment of the director’s grandiose tendencies, many still held a deep admiration for Zeffirelli’s artistry. Among these admirers were a group of divas who found the director to be an invaluable collaborator. Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, for example, spoke glowingly of Zeffirelli’s work on his 1996 production of “Carmen,” describing how he helped her to create a memorable interpretation of the fiery lead character. Despite the mixed opinions on his style, there is no denying that Zeffirelli’s impact on the world of opera was immense – his larger-than-life productions continue to inspire awe and wonder in audiences around the world.

Few actors have been able to carve out a lasting legacy quite like the two-time Oscar nominee who also happens to be a member of Italy’s political class. Despite having established himself as a force to be reckoned with on the Hollywood scene, this charismatic personality also actively served two terms as a member of the Italian senate- a feat that easily sets him apart from others in his profession. Adding yet another feather to his impressive cap, he was later made a knight of the British empire in recognition of his significant contributions to the entertainment industry. It’s clear that this individual’s passion and dedication to making a difference in the world transcends just his acting prowess- he’s a real-life superhero with the deeds to match!

In 1959, Italian opera director Franco Zeffirelli received an invitation that would change the course of his career. Thanks to the recommendation of conductor Tullio Serafin, Zeffirelli was asked to direct Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden in London. It was here that he would work with emerging soprano Joan Sutherland for the first time, marking the beginning of a fruitful artistic partnership. After impressing audiences with his realistic staging of Cavalleria Rusticana, Zeffirelli was invited to direct the double bill production of “Cav and Pag”. The British operagoers were stunned by the level of detail that was brought to the stage, once again establishing Zeffirelli as a master of his craft. These early successes in London would propel him to international fame, cementing his status as one of the greatest opera directors of all time.

During his career, he directed some of the most iconic operas and plays across Europe. He had the honor of working with the famous Maria Callas on productions of Tosca at Covent Garden and Norma in Paris. He also ventured back to his home country of Italy where he staged Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to an enthusiastic crowd and critical acclaim. But his crowning achievement may have been his Italian version of Romeo and Juliet, which delighted audiences with its robust and passionate performances. Even though some critics were not as impressed, it was clear that his productions were meant to please the people and not just the critics. His take on Hamlet, performed at the Old Vic in 1964, was also met with high praise.

Franco Zeffirelli was a master artist in the world of film, renowned for his adaptations of Shakespearean classics. Among his notable works is his 1967 version of The Taming of the Shrew, which starred the iconic Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. He also lent his directorial talents to other Shakespearean plays such as Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson in the titular role. Additionally, Zeffirelli was a two-time elected member of the Italian Senate, who was renowned for his conservative beliefs, including on the topic of abortion. Later in life, he became the adoptive father of two adult sons, Pippo and Luciano.

Franco Zeffirelli’s passion for the theater was ignited after he saw Laurence Oliver’s unforgettable performance in Henry V, a Shakespearean classic. Though he initially studied architecture, he went on to become a celebrated director of operas, plays and movies. His talent and vision shone in his 1968 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, which was not only a box-office hit but also earned him an Oscar nomination. But it all started with his set design for an Italian production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire in 1949, which marked his arrival as a major force in the world of theater and cinema.

The year was 1981 at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, and director Franco Zeffirelli was about to put on one of the most extravagant productions in the history of the renowned venue. La Boheme was the opera of choice, and with the help of renowned performers Teresa Stratas and Jose Carreras, Zeffirelli spared no expense in creating an ornate and lavish set. It was a masterpiece that earned him high praise from opera enthusiasts all over the world. This was just one of many productions that Zeffirelli led for the prestigious Met during his career. The Italian director was widely celebrated, even in his native country where he received five David di Donatello Awards. Even years after his passing, his contributions to the world of opera continue to be cherished and celebrated.

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