Met honors Franco Zeffirelli

Director has created 12 brilliant productions

No “La Boheme” has been more beloved and honored than the production designed by Franco Zeffirelli for the 1981 Metropolitan Opera season; a staple ever since. (All in all, Zeffirelli’s “La Boheme” has played the Met a record 347 times!) On Saturday night, Franco — a lustrous name in cinema, as well — was honored with the installation of two plaques, one on each side of the great Met stage, celebrating his contributions to opera — he has created 12 brilliant productions, beginning with “Falstaff” in 1964. Franco stepped up to acknowledge his award at the end of “La Boheme’s” Act II, emerging onstage from a mass of people assembled for the unparalleled Cafe Momus/marketplace set. His appearance provoked a near-hysterical reaction from the audience. Most in attendance knew he was being honored, but the drama was, well — very operatic! (So, OK, forget the “near” — they were hysterical.) Franco was overwhelmed. He said, “I will spare you an emotional director!” He did speak, briefly, praising all in the current production, and then ended with, “I am speechless!” But as he turned to leave the stage, he stopped, and faced the audience again, “I want to pay tribute to the technical expertise of the Met, what they do.” We have to pay tribute as well! In a 48 hour period, the Met put on three massive productions — Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” on Friday, a Saturday matinee of Verdi’s “Ernani” and then “Boheme.” And, remember, when you go to the Met, you are hearing real singers sing. No mikes. It is theater like it used to be; no tricks, only talent.

OF THE current production, I can only rave. It is exquisite. Franco Zeffirelli’s “La Boheme” plays the Met until April 15. If possible, don’t miss it. You’ll weep as Mimi slips away, but the art of fine dying will leave you curiously uplifted. As the bravos finally subsided Saturday night, one opera maven turned to another and said, “Do you think they’ll ever replace this production?” Came the response: “Well, as long as they don’t mind a riot spilling all over Lincoln Center, I guess they could.” I think Franco’s vision of Puccini is safe for some time to come.

The Friars Club talked me into being honored at one of their festive luncheons on East 55th Street in their fine old headquarters. That entertainment specialist, Jeffrey Lyons did the honors in asking questions about my long life in show business, after a lunch of high-powered smartly turned-out yentas had eaten their fill, talked their talk and made their decisions. I knew Jeffrey’s own famous father back in the days when columnist Leonard Lyons hit the bricks nightly to cover El Morocco, the Stork and Toots Shor’s. Leonard was the world’s greatest collector of celebrity anecdotes and Jeffrey is another one. We covered the waterfront talking of Alan King, Joey Bishop, Frank Sinatra and Milton Berle. But I never did get a satisfactory answer as to why the Friars, who are predominantly Jewish, named themselves after medieval Catholic monks. Go figure!

ROBERT DE Niro and Ira Drukier plus their partners, De Niro’s son Raphael, and Richard Born opened up their Greenwich Hotel in the heart of TriBeCa this week. Bobby wanted “to create a space that would serve guests more as a residence than a hotel.” He added a big personal touch to this 88-room luxury spot by hanging artwork of his late father, De Niro Sr. And the restaurant Ago, designed by Grayling, also boasts De Niro Sr’s work and is adjacent to the hotel lobby.

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