When Franco Zeffirelli—the creator of eight productions in the Metropolitan Opera’s repertory, beginning with his 1964 Falstaff—took the enormous Lincoln Center stage March 29, it was for a celebration. With its 347th performance, that night, his La Bohème had become the Met’s most-staged production. Zeffirelli and general manager Peter Gelb smiled together during the tribute, but, as is always the case with a Zeffirelli opera, the overstuffed, florid scene onstage masked the fact that things actually aren’t that glorious.
“It had the smell of the ashes,” the 85-year-old Zeffirelli says, sitting in a palatial Waldorf-Astoria suite. “I didn’t feel really at ease in that funeral parade. I felt, I am here for my commemoration, not my celebration.” Gelb plans to start replacing Zeffirelli’s productions. “They must preserve some of my productions, which are really masterpieces,” Zeffirelli says. “I shouldn’t say that, but people say that, and I have been convinced they are right.” He wants at least his Falstaff and Tosca to remain, though he’s willing to part with La Traviata. “My grandfather said, ‘Before destroying, you must know what you are going to build,’ ” Zeffirelli says. “I imagine the Met must present masterpieces with a different approach, but who is going to give a better approach than what I did?” But while his Bohème and Turandot are staying, a new Tosca and a new Carmen are set for the 2009–10 season, and a new Traviata for the following season.
The director expects a meeting soon with the general manager, and a Zeffirelli friend threatens a protest on the Lincoln Center Plaza if his designs aren’t preserved. But with new productions already in the pipeline, Gelb seems unlikely to change his plans. “Certainly, the intention of bringing Franco to New York was anything but a kiss-off,” he says. “I think in his mind he’d like to do new productions forever. That’s not a realistic option.”