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Metropolitan Opera honors Zeffirelli

NEW YORK - Franco Zeffirelli, who has directed film, theater and opera worldwide, is being honored this weekend for the dozen lavish productions he created that "shaped the history" of the Metropolitan Opera.

Three Zeffirelli productions are being performed this season, including Puccini's "La Boheme." Its season opening Saturday was a celebration of the Italian director who made his Met debut in 1964 with a production of Verdi's "Falstaff."

Between acts, the 85-year-old Zeffirelli stepped onstage, surrounded by the full "Boheme" cast as he received a standing ovation from the audience.

"Franco, we're honoring you tonight in front of your adoring fans" - both fellow artists and spectators, said Met General Manager Peter Gelb. He said two plaques would be attached to both sides of the proscenium for those entering or leaving the stage to see - indicating "that Franco Zeffirelli shaped the history of the Met."

Holding onto the arm of soprano Angela Gheorghiu, an overcome Zeffirelli responded: "I feel so extremely moved by your extraordinary welcome... I am speechless with all the emotion - and the commotion!"

Behind him was the set of his 1981 production of "Boheme," with le tout Paris out and about in the Latin Quarter, including a donkey and a white horse and carriage. It's still among the Met's most beloved and most performed shows, having been staged almost 350 times.

On Saturday, conductor Nicola Luisotti led the ensemble starring Gheorghiu, her pure, lustrous voice singing Mimi at the Met for the first time in a dozen years, with the resonant, caramel-rich tenor of Ramon Vargas as her lover, Rodolfo.

On Monday, stars from Zeffirelli's film and stage productions are to attend a Metropolitan Opera Guild luncheon at Manhattan's Waldorf-Astoria hotel.

Gheorghiu and Jeremy Irons will offer musical and spoken tributes for an audience that will include Gelb, actors Lynn Redgrave and Eli Wallach, tenor Marcello Giordani, baritone Thomas Hampson, sopranos Patricia Racette and Kiri Te Kanawa, cabaret legend Barbara Cook, designer Oscar de la Renta, and Cardinal Edward Egan, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York.

If grand and splendid are words often applied to opera, Zeffirelli's spectacles define them with their lavish, colorful costumes, over-the-top crowd scenes and a coterie of animals roaming the sets.

Though eight of his productions are still active at the Met, they're slowly being replaced by edgier, modern directing.

But this week, the spotlights were on the aging master.

"I have always been full of doubts," said the Florence-born Zeffirelli told The Associated Press, adding with a chuckle: "But in the end, I have to agree that I'm quite a good director."

Four decades after he filled the world's movie screens and fans' hearts with "Romeo and Juliet," he's still signing autographs for the Oscar-winning film.

Theaters across the country are celebrating the 40th anniversary of what fans have dubbed "R&J" with special showings, and Zeffirelli is happy to scribble his name on DVDs.

Zeffirelli says the "Romeo and Juliet" story is never outdated.

"Honestly, in the heart of hearts of adolescents today, there is the same desire to live an adventure of this same intensity," he said recently in a telephone interview. "The film is only the carrier of this eternal love story. There is no other story that is so perfectly engineered and resounds so promptly with the affairs of the heart."

At his villa outside Rome, Zeffirelli still receives letters about the film from new and very young fans.

"I identify completely with American kids today," he says. "Like me, they are comfortable with what's stimulating in life - in everything."

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On the Net:

Metropolitan Opera: http://www.metopera.org

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