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Romeo and Juliet: Star-Crossed Spectacle

<em>Romeo and Juliet: </em>Star-Crossed Spectacle

Over the course of a prolific career that yielded dozens of theatrical productions, films, and television series, the Italian director and producer Franco Zeffirelli repeatedly explored the pleasures of spectacle. His work is filled with epic scenes featuring crowds of extras, exterior landscapes awash in vibrant color, and interior sets with towering columns and busy frescoes shot from dizzying perspectives. He gravitated to large-scale, broadly appealing projects produced with stylistic flair, a preference that spoke to his status as a populist committed to making art accessible.

Zeffirelli was born in 1923 in the shadow of one of Italy’s great spectacles: the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. The child of an extramarital affair, he was raised by his aunt and a community of elderly English expatriates after his mother died when he was six. His Anglophilia is often traced to this period, a time that he dramatized in his semi-autobiographical 1999 film Tea with Mussolini. At the start of his artistic career in the 1940s and ’50s, he had the good fortune to apprentice under Luchino Visconti, a master who excelled on both stage and screen. This formative experience allowed him, by the early 1960s, to establish an international reputation as a director of opera and theater.

After he turned to film directing later that decade, it soon became clear that adaptation was one of Zeffirelli’s abiding passions, possibly because canonical texts gave him the opportunity to train his visual imagination on recreating different worlds and historical eras. He delighted in a wide range of sources—from the biblical (as in his 1977 miniseries Jesus of Nazareth) to the operatic (1982’s La traviata) to the literary (1996’s Jane Eyre)—but the material to which he most consistently returned was the work of William Shakespeare. Zeffirelli was well known for his stage productions of Romeo and Juliet (1960), Othello (1961), Hamlet (1963), and Much Ado About Nothing (1965), as well as for his renditions of operas such as Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff (1956) and Otello (1972) and Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra (1966). Even more influential, though, are his three cinematic interpretations of the Bard: The Taming of the Shrew (1967), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; Romeo and Juliet (1968), which features unknown teenage actors in the title roles; and Hamlet (1990), famous for Mel Gibson’s performance as the Dane.

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