Franco Zeffirelli, the Italian director and designer who reigned in theater, film and opera as the unrivaled master of grandeur, orchestrating the youthful 1968 movie version of "Romeo and Juliet" and transporting operagoers to Parisian rooftops and the pyramids of Egypt in productions widely regarded as classics, died Saturday at his home in Rome. He was 96.
Zeffirelli — a self-proclaimed "flag-bearer of the crusade against boredom, bad taste and stupidity in the theater" — was a defining presence in the arts since the 1950s. In his view, less was not more. "More is fine," a collaborator recalled Zeffirelli saying, and as a set designer, he delivered more gilt, more brocade and more grandiosity than many theater patrons expected to find on a single stage.
From his earliest days, he seemed to belong to the opera. Born in Italy to a married woman and her lover, he received neither parent's surname. His mother dubbed him "Zeffiretti," an Italian word that means "little breezes" and that arises in Mozart's opera "Idomeneo," in the aria "Zeffiretti lusinghieri." An official mistakenly recorded the name as "Zeffirelli."
He grew up mainly in Florence, amid the city's Renaissance riches, and trained as an artist before being pulled into theater and then film by an early and influential mentor, Luchino Visconti. Zeffirelli matured into a sought-after director, staging works in Milan, London and New York City, where he became a Metropolitan Opera mainstay.
His first major work as a film director was "The Taming of the Shrew" (1967), a screen adaptation of Shakespeare's comedy, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. But Zeffirelli was best known for the Shakespearean adaptation released the next year — "Romeo and Juliet," starring Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey.
With a lush soundtrack by Nino Rota, and with its equally lush visuals, the film won the Oscar for best cinematography and was a runaway box office success. Film critic Roger Ebert declared it "the most exciting film of Shakespeare ever made."
In the opera, an art form already known for its opulence, big voices and bigger personalities, Zeffirelli permitted himself to be deterred by neither physical nor financial constraints. "Opera audiences demand the spectacular," he said.
Zeffirelli had notable artistic relationships with two of the most celebrated sopranos of the 20th century, Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. But certain Zeffirelli sets seemed to excite the opera world even more than the performers. One example was his production of Puccini's "La Boheme," an extravaganza set in 19th-century Paris and famous for its exuberant street scene and magical snowfall. After its 1981 premiere at the Met, it was said that the audience lavished on Zeffirelli a grander ovation than the one reserved for conductor James Levine and the singers who played the opera's bohemian lovers.
His production of Verdi's "Aida," performed at Milan's La Scala in 1963 with soprano Leontyne Price and tenor Carlo Bergonzi, featured 600 singers and dancers (including scantily clad belly dancers), 10 horses, towering idols, palm trees and sphinxes littering the expanse of the stage.
Zeffirelli was born in Florence on Feb. 12, 1923. His father, Ottorino Corsi, was a businessman, and his mother, Alaide Garosi, was a fashion designer. After his mother died when he was 6, he became the charge of an aunt.
He attended art school before studying architecture at the University of Florence. His studies were put on hold during World War II, when he fought alongside anti-fascist partisans.
Zeffirelli received a best director Oscar nomination for "Romeo and Juliet." (He lost to Carol Reed for the musical "Oliver!") He also garnered a nomination for best art direction for his 1982 film adaptation of Verdi's opera "La Traviata," starring Teresa Stratas and Plácido Domingo.
His other notable films included "Hamlet" (1990) starring Mel Gibson and Glenn Close. Less acclaimed was "Endless Love" (1981), starring Brooke Shields and Martin Hewitt in a tragic story of teen romance.