In 1986, Time Out sent me to Italy to interview Franco Zeffirelli to tie in with the publication of his autobiography and the release of his film version of Verdi’s Otello.

This was before his declaration in 1993 that abortion was a capital crime and that women who had had abortions should be put to death. Otherwise, obviously, I would have asked him to explain himself, or got into an argument, or slapped him, or stayed at home. 

But instead, Zeffirelli proved to be the perfect host, feeding me and putting me up in one of the many lovely villas in the lovely grounds of his lovely home. Had I been a good-looking young man, it’s possible I might still be there.

Otello (1986)_2

From Naples, you skirt the shadow of Vesuvius, go round the Campanella Point and take the Amalfi Drive, where the tortuous cliffside curves offer plenty of opportunities for Italian cabbies to reduce you to a state of Lucia di Lammermoor. Just past Positano, Franco Zeffirelli lives in something resembling Paradise. There, above the sparkling blue sea, beneath the busky pine and bougainvillea, the blissful silence is broken only by the sound of Jack Russells practising dorsal frottage against the wickerwork.

Zeffirelli has six dogs. The blind one that bit Leonard Bernstein (but only after he stepped on it) tries playfully to trip me up as I negotiate the steps which link the table tennis grotto to the patio to the terrace where lunch is being served. A furry-chested financier has popped ashore from his passing yacht, and is deep in conversation with the cook, who has just produced spaghetti al homegrown pomodoro for 20 people.

Zeffirelli is concerned about Bambina, mother of Ginger and Musetta. She has had a complete change of personality, he says, ever since she went to have her coat trimmed in a Beverly Hills coat-trimming parlour. They had blithely shaved off her whiskers also, thus depriving her of her essential canine antennae. Now she is nervous, unsure of herself. Zeffirelli cannot even conceive of directing another opera at Covent Garden while the quarantine laws prevent Bambina from accompanying him there. Moreover, Covent Garden simply cannot afford him. “Not that I throw away money, but my productions are big investments. My 1955 Tosca still runs like mad. My 1959 productions of Cavalleria and Lucia still run after 26 years.”

Like his onetime mentor Luchino Visconti, Zeffirelli is probably best known in this country for his films, but has a long and honourable history of opera and theatre set design and direction behind him. The Zeffirelli villa is living set design, but a set you can live in comfortably, reclining on sequin-studded white banquettes between giant conches and palm fronds. Beneath a glass dome there is a statue of the Virgin fashioned entirely from tiny winkles; it should be unspeakably kitsch, but it’s not (and I want it).



Zeffirelli’s whole life so far, as charted in his autobiography, could supply material for several libretti. He was born in Florence in 1923. The name Zeffirelli was a misspelling for Zeffiretti, the “little breezes” in a Cosi Fan Tutte aria his mother loved so much. One of his earliest memories is of her, veiled in black, attempting to stab his father with a hatpin. His father was married to a woman who once followed little Franco home from school, muttering bastardino the whole way.

Then there are coincidences to rival the plot of Il Trovatore. As a partisan during the war, he fell into the hands of the enemy. A young Fascist grudgingly saved his life; he later found out this was his brother, another of his philandering father’s illegitimate offspring. When he suffered a near-fatal car accident in 1969 (flung through the windscreen of Gina Lollobrigida’s Rolls), it was at exactly the same spot on the Rome-Florence road where he had himself come across a crashed coachload of priests a few weeks earlier. He was rushed to the very same hospital to which he had helped ferry wounded Jesuits.

“Looking back on things as I was telling them to David Sweetman [who helped write the first draft of the book], I myself realised that this man was not going to believe them,” says Zeffirelli. “He was sceptical, and then he went around double-checking what I’d said. Much to his surprise, he found out that everything really happened.” It was during the long recuperation following his smash-up that Zeffirelli’s mind turned to higher things. That Rome-Florence road also led to Damascus. “I strongly believe in two things I know might be considered mediaeval: I believe in Satan, and I believe in the Guardian Angel, the spirit that guides you and protects you.”

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Teresa Stratas in Zeffirelli’s 1982 film of La Traviata

His autobiography is an exhilarating mix of information and anecdote. There is World War II from the Italian angle. There is the tragedy of the Florence flood (which he documented on film to help raise funds) and the flakes of the Cimabue crucifix he saw being flushed down the drain by well-meaning firemen.

There is Visconti, reeking of Penhaligon’s Hammam Bouquet, first glimpsed having an artistic tantrum during rehearsals for a production of Tobacco Road. There are Coco Chanel, and Maria Callas, and Anna Magnani, all prima donnas in their own fields, but all great artists. The book even manages to squeeze in a chapter on his new film of Otello.

After the operatic pop tunes of La Traviata, which he filmed in 1982 (a project he originally dreamed of doing with Callas, although Teresa Stratas took the role and made it hers) the choice of Verdi’s penultimate, possibly greatest opera might seem a more risky enterprise. “Traviata is very much a favourite of middle-class ladies or young kids,’ says Zeffirelli, making me wonder which category I fall into. ‘But Otello involves so many layers of culture that I think it should have more appeal. It’s more  difficult – you don’t hum the tunes necessarily – but it’s more serious, it’s more cinema.’

Sample guinea-pig from the Time Out offices, whingeing while being subjected to boxed set: “I don’t like this very much. There aren’t any tunes.” In fact, Otello is brimful of tunes, but it needs perseverance on the listener’s part before they begin to emerge. The nearest thing to a hit single is probably Desdemona’s Willow Song.

Zeffirelli cut it out.

“It’s one of the greatest operas ever composed, but it needs some trimming, even on stage. I cut out 40 minutes here and there. The Willow Song is the most boring piece in the opera – it goes on forever. It comes from Shakespeare, kind of a mad scene, she has premonitions of death, and she remembers mother, willow, wiiillow, wiiillow.” Mere print cannot convey the contempt with which Zeffirelli utters the word “willow”.

The willowy bits, however, do tend to make Desdemona sound droopier than she actually is. After all, we agree, she must have been a pretty spunky gal to have married a moor in the first place, in those days.

After seeing the rushes of Otello, producer Menachem Golan* cabled: “Each frame looks as if it were painted by God!” The film is indeed a feast for the old retina. It also contains three central performances that are heart-stopping in their intensity. Placido Domingo outdoes the likes of Laurence Olivier without once resorting to ham. Olivier is reported to have said, “This son of a bitch, not only does he act as well as I do, but he also sings.”

Otello (1986) [Italy poster]“What is extraordinary,” says Zeffirelli, “is that he is racially so right. He is a real black. Not completely, but like Egyptians, Nubians. I gave him additional teeth, you know.” Shakespeare’s source was a story by Da Porto, which mentions il moro. In Italian that means not only “moor”, but also “dark-skinned”. Shakespeare took the word literally and Verdi took his cue from Shakespeare. But, as Zeffirelli affirms, “Italian make-up people are the best in Europe! He could kiss her and it wouldn’t smear!”

Iago is played by Puerto Rican baritone Justino Diaz, who was also at the receiving end of the Italian make-up people. “When you see him without it, he looks like what he is – a Mexican bullfighter!’ says Zeffirelli. [Note: Diaz is neither Mexican nor a bullfighter, but he did a very fine portrayal of Escamillo with Zeffirelli in Vienna.] “But he is so subtle, so dangerous. And so likeable, hmm? He’s a nasty man, but there are nasty people around, especially in armies.”

Then there is Katia Ricciarelli, who was ordered to drop 18 pounds before filming started. “Wonderful. For my money, she’s the best Desde-mona ever, even in the dramatic theatre. She comes from Venice. She’s really a Venetian beauty; the skin, kind of plumpness. She looks like a painting of Titian.”

Zeffirelli seems to be particularly fond of the film’s interpretation of Cassio, played by (non-singing, but the miming’s so good you wouldn’t notice) Urbano Barberini, blond, blue-eyed and a hereditary prince whose family has produced five popes and who gets the only nude scene in the film, a sleeptalking image conjured by Iago to inflame Otello’s jealousy. Barberini was last seen in Lamberto Bava’s Demons, in which an audience of cinemagoers turns into flesh-ripping zombies while watching a horror film.

“A very attractive man,” says Zeffirelli. “And he’s so right with her. They are both blonde, Venetian, practically brought up together. They are friends, like upper-class English. They crack jokes, but they don’t necessarily go to bed. But anyone who doesn’t belong to the clan might think there is something going on…”

At dinner on the terrace, Zeffirelli trades waspish wisecracks with his guests and pets the fretful Bambina. “What we are doing now,” he says, “by introducing opera to larger layers of society throughout the world, through the cinematic medium, could be compared to the revolution of culture in the late fifteenth century when book printing was invented. Instead of 10,000 people in five performances at Covent Garden, you have ten million people throughout the world in a year. And perhaps out of those millions of new spectators, the population might contain individuals who might fall in love with opera, devote their lives to it, boys and girls who have a voice, and they get encouraged to develop that voice and become singers, or boys who have a longing for conducting, or perhaps one day we might even have new composers. We lose a tremendous amount of potential talent that goes into pop music.”

And so, after a night on the cool white tiles, I bid a sad farewell to Positano. The Gutenberg of La Scala, in his morning kaftan, is drinking breakfast coffee and already entertaining the first of the guests who have trickled down from their rooms with a view. As I leave for the airport, he is chanting: “There was a young man from Khartoum, who kept a dead whore in his room…”



*Otello, believe it or not, was a Cannon co-production. Constantly perceived as tacky and vilified in the press throughout the 1980s, Cannon or Golan-Globus (the company that owned it) was responsible for, among other things, Street Smart (which put Morgan Freeman on the map and earned him an Oscar nomination), Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train and John Cassavetes’s Love Streams, as well as a wide variety of exploitation titles probably perceived more fondly now than they were at the time of their release, including Ruggero Deodato’s The Barbarians, Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce and the never-to-be-forgotten Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.

Cannon was also responsible for the UK distribution of Donald Cammell’s White of the Eye, which if I recall correctly (please tell me if I’m wrong) was grudgingly granted an extremely limited release only after some film critics kicked up a fuss.


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