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After receiving a degree at the Drama Academy (Accademia dei Filodrammatici) of Milan in the early 1950s, he was hired by Sergio Pugliese at RAI, at the onset of Italian television. He was the first to bring opera to the small screen, in 1956, with Madama Butterfly, by Giacomo Puccini, which introduced to a wide public Anna Moffo, at that time an unknown American soprano, who became his wife (1957–1974 div.).
In 1967 he began his career as a film director with the western movie Sentenza di morte (Sentence of Death).
He lives in a 16th Century villa in Santa Maria del Piano outside Parma.
- 1 Biography
- 1.1 The years of experimental television
- 1.2 Ever new adventures
- 1.3 Producer of Carosello shows and fashion show director
- 1.4 The man: irony, cult of the ephemeral and cupio dissolvi
- 1.5 Rome, the great adventure, a late-developing love
- 1.6 Theatre, "my love", visits and re-visits
- 1.7 Collections and hobbies, myths and not myths
- 2 Opera TV Productions and films
- 3 References
- 4 Sources
Since childhood he absorbed at home the atmosphere of theatre and music. He was even held at baptism by two famous singers of the period, the tenor Francesco Merli and the soprano Mercedes Caspir, and as a very young man he was personally acquainted with some of the most notable singers, including Maria Caniglia, Ebe Stignani, Beniamino Gigli, Gino Bechi as well as promising operatic newcomers like Mario Del Monaco.
His father Guido (1895–1957), a music enthusiast and especially an opera-lover, had been the president of the theatre commission and later the superintendent of the Teatro Regio (Royal Theatre) of Parma, and was later entrusted with other important responsibilities in the field of editing and administration of the daily newspaper Il Tempo di Milano, besides Il Sole and 24 Ore, two important financial dailies that later merged under the single banner of Il Sole 24 Ore.
After observing the restrictions which afflicted the lives of many actors, the elder Lanfranchi would have preferred to see his son in major managerial positions of important companies and so he tried to dissuade the young Mario from his interests in theatre and acting. At the end they balanced a prudent degree in jurisprudence with courses in acting and directing at the Accademia dei Filodrammatici (Drama Academy) of Milan. Mario already lived at the time in the Lombard capital of Milan where, after the devastating April–May 1944 bombings of Parma, prompted by the nearby rail and highway junctions, the family had moved him in with friends, assured that in the shadow of the nearby church's protective Madonna, he would be safer.
- During the final tryout at the Academy he was noticed by leading actor Gianni Santuccio, who would shortly end his relations with Piccolo Teatro (Milan) as a result of a major argument with director Giorgio Strehler, and he offered to a stunned and emotional Mario Lanfranchi, the job of directing his new show at the Teatro Manzoni for a newly formed company that featured Lilla Brignone. It turned out very well, and there followed opportunities to direct other works, including opera, since in the meantime he had also had his 'baptism' in lyric opera at the Teatro Morlacchi of Perugia through the assistance of the publisher and impresario from Bologna, Carlo Alberto Cappelli.
- Before entrusting him with the direction of an operatic work, Cappelli had tested him by assigning him to oversee the practical details of an important project in collaboration with the two famous impresarios Eugene Iskoldoff and Peter Daubeny. That was the 1952 English tour of an Italian opera company specifically formed for the occasion, with singers from La Scala and major names like Tito Gobbi and Magda Olivero. The "National Italian Opera Company" debuted at London's Stoll Theatre, remained on the program for two months and for another two months was taken on a triumphal tour of the major English cities. Its success was such that the tour was repeated the following year. Additionally, the event had such a considerable impact that the 25-year -old director was included in the list of invited guests at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. “A grand and unforgettable spectacle”, as this man of the theatre likes to recall it.
The years of experimental television
At the end of 1952 he met with Sergio Pugliese, a journalist and successful playwright, past manager of the radio station EIAR and responsible since 1937 for radio dramatic programs as well as variety and musical broadcasts. The new RAI network, with an eye on television programming, had sent Pugliese to the U.S. to examine the technology and, upon his return, offered him a head producer's role in the central production offices for television programs in the center scheduled to open in Milan. In reality official programming began on January 3, 1954 in the studios located in Turin.
In the golden era of the Italian cinema, movie directors viewed the new medium of television rather snobbishly, considering it a clumsy hybrid with an unlikely artistic future, and they criticized especially the impromptu editing and the telecasts in direct sound, requiring prompt reflexes and quick decision-making, without the possibility of second chances that often salvaged the fortunes of a show in a theatre auditorium. The "father of TV" (Sergio Pugliese), then, had chosen to favour a looser theatrical form in selecting a small company of persons who, under his guidance, would have to practice with original formats and creative language for this newborn medium of television.
* Thus began the period that Lanfranchi often recalls as the most thrilling and exciting of his long and varied career.
- “We were convinced that we would change the world, and perhaps, it seems, that's exactly what happened.”
He thought he was to direct his energies to the theatre; instead other varied projects awaited him in short order. Given Pugliese's conviction that television was a form of “radio in motion, ” where everything took on the form of a cosmic homemade theatre, with precise responsibilities with the goal of cultural and educational purposes, the versatile young director was soon entrusted not only with those opera projects, for which he is most often remembered and celebrated, but also with various other major "first events" in the history of television. They ranged from sports programs to song shows and to pure spectacles, from Eurovision to the RAI-DUE second channel, to the inaugural openings of new television studios in Turin and Naples. All this earned him the nickname "the inaugurator" among those who observed his work.
- Strengthened by his stage experience, he managed to persuade the artistic director of RAI, the musicologist Ferdinando Ballo, to add lyric opera to the programs. After a disastrous first live telecast in 1955 at La Scala (Norma with Maria Callas: “you could hardly see anything; the lighting was not enough for our TV cameras, and besides that, Callas sang badly”), he directed opera productions for RAI, with that special mixed blend of components, in this case theatre and cinema rolled into one. They offered up serious music with a means that was both sophisticated and, on their surface, accessible to the public-at-large.
The viewers responded with genuine enthusiasm, leading to an early form of television star-recognition for the mass audience. Here singers and even opera divas competed with equal strength alongside the “Miss Good-Evenings, ” the pop-music idols, and popular sports-heroes. In little more than five years he directed about forty operas, often re-shown even today to the delight of opera fans. With time it became understood that areas of television considered open to exploration were perhaps far less wide when compared to the earlier dreams of the young impassioned proponents at the time of the medium's beginnings.
- “Until I realized that I was enclosing these huge spectacles inside a little box, "the box" as it became known in America, seemed more suitable for the transmission of soccer matches. After a few years, I fled and moved on to other endeavours.”
Ever new adventures
To escape the insufferable boredom that crept in, given the lack of intellectual and artistic challenges, Mario Lanfranchi developed a taste for more varied and serious attractions in various fields. It became a critical factor in all his artistic and personal endeavours. He nurtured each time his store of personal enthusiasm as he enriched and developed his experiences. And this explains why he would change directions and strike headfirst toward whatever pursuit might attract his attention.
During his years spent in Milan, before marrying Anna Moffo, he had had two stable and meaningful romantic relationships with Renata Tebaldi and Virginia Zeani. Among his closest friends were Umberto Eco, Furio Colombo, Luciano Berio, Bruno Maderna, but a strong personal friendship also joined him to notable celebrities of popular music. A solid core group included Johnny Dorelli, Gorni Kramer, Gigi Cichellero, Alberto Rabagliati and the great tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano. In the strict sense, however, he was the only non-musician among them, though having studied music and piano. He joined the discussions of projects by members of the group. These discussions were light in form but serious in content.
- Also remembered were his skills as a talent scout in the area of popular music: he entrusted the theme of the first series of the "Anna Moffo Show" to Luigi Tenco (Lucio Dalla debuted with him on TV). Caterina Caselli offered the premiere of the future hit-song "Nessuno mi può giudicare" (No One Can Judge Me), and Italians saw the small screen light up with the unmistakable smile of Rocky Roberts, who later became "Mr. Stasera mi butto" (Mr. Tonight I'm hitting to you).
- Lanfranchi's varied and complex cultural foundation, (a mixture mentioned above) for which critic Giuliano Gramigna of the top newspaper Corriere della Sera later coined the term "visionary realism", led him to explore and offer a potpourri of various musical genres. They were different from each other, from operatic music to Genoese singer-songwriters, from jazz to beat, from negro spirituals to poetry, from dramatic pieces to operetta, from mixed concerts to light music.
At the start of the 1960s, after leaving RAI, he moved to Rome, the cultural capital but also a more central location geographically and certainly more convenient for frequent moves, both his own and Moffo's, within Italy and abroad. In those years Rome was a prime destination, not only for tourism but for work, for people in the international entertainment industry and especially in the movies. Both because of competitive costs and because "Hollywood on the Tiber" (Cinecittà) allowed foreign producers to spend their accumulated earnings in Italy, but which Italian law prevented them from exporting. To the delight of the paparazzi, the most famous names in world cinema would land at Rome's Fiumicino airport.
Early on, Lanfranchi and his wife lived in an attractive modern home across from the Palatine Hill with a view overlooking the Imperial Forums. Then, when these began to be illuminated for the delight of tourists by the phantasmagoric and noisy spectacle “Sound and Light, ” they consoled themselves with the scenographic historic palace of the 19th Century nobleman, the Marchese del Grillo. This was a circumstance that oddly caused a turn in his choices as an art collector.
In the meanwhile there was growing within the director a real crisis of rejection with regard to opera, an upheaval so deep and upsetting that, even at the distance of so many years, still makes it uncomfortable for him to set foot in the temples of opera. It was a rejection for too much love of music, one could say. He himself often felt that he was kind of intruder in his operatic productions, because patrons go to the opera first and foremost to hear the music, and the musical line as conceived by the composer should not be distorted by virtuosic directorial displays and effects. At the height of this period, while around him there raged unfamiliar theories about an ever more invasive task of operatic directing, he was obliged to honour three already-signed contracts with La Scala, the Rome Opera, and the Teatro Verdi of Trieste. To avoid long and painful negotiations and in order to be able to work on more stimulating projects, he even agreed to the payment of a punitive fine to get out of the contract.
- Preferring to express his boundless imagination in other areas generally more in line with his own views, as can be gathered from his recollections and interviews, it is easy to deduce that the only non-traditional operatic staging that really pleased and involved him was the Carmen (1956) performed in "Charleston" costuming and featuring his friend and sometimes enemy Franco Corelli. It was a production aptly created as part of the experimental work by the Teatro delle Novità (“Theatre of Novelty”) of the Donizetti Theatre in Bergamo. It was to be at once panned and praised by the critics.
- He was the force behind many other spectaculars which made an enormous impression and were even rather colossal theatre events. One can remember "Il corteo storico matildico" (a pageant-procession honouring Matilda of Tuscany) (1955) or "Lo sbarco di Garibaldi" (The Landing of Garibaldi). Then also there was "1915–1918: la guerra e la vittoria" (1915–1918: War and Victory), a special about World War I and which inaugurated Rete 2 (Channel 2) of RAI, and then the phantasmagoric heights of "Festa italiana" (1966) a celebration of Italian culture and folklore put on at Madison Square Garden.
- In 1961, to honour his unforgotten fame as an “inaugurator, ” the International Prize Luigi Illica was bestowed on him. He was the first recipient after its creation.
The chronology of his artistic activity during this period is difficult to follow. Events alternate, then follow each other, and finally intermingle with regard to amounts of time spent, and approaches used.
- At RAI he continued to collaborate on the completion of numerous projects, for which he was the creator and also the producer and director. Thanks to the houses of production he was associated with he could develop with increased autonomy those projects that were close to his heart. From the start he continued the already begun series of dramatic productions, with television adaptations of Italian titles chosen from among the store of less-seen works, as well as an original work for television by Franco Enna, entitled "Ritorno dall’abisso" (Return from the Abyss) in 1963. Then came the opportunity to offer foreign works, unseen in Italy, that "the inaugurator" had absorbed in his close contact with international cultural movements.
- Among other projects he initiated and worked on were the series called TuttoTotò, (featuring Totò, the most famous Italian comic actor of all times) re-broadcast almost annually, "L’Opera in un’ora" (Opera in One Hour), which became a formula later adapted in various educational programs of RAI, as was also "The Anna Moffo Show", in which the soprano performed the role both of emcee and scene-stealer in January 1964. Also remembered are television shows which he directed, already-mentioned spectaculars of one type or another. In 1967, at Cinecittà, he filmed the second series of "The Anna Moffo Show". Among the credits appeared the director of photography (and later director) Massimo Dallamano. As camera operator, there was Vittorio Storaro, the future director of photography who liked to characterize himself by saying that one can write even with light and who would win several Hollywood Oscars for his work.
- With his record behind him of La serva padrona in 1958, he solidified his work with the production and direction of opera-on-film such as La traviata, 1966, and a few years later with Lucia di Lammermoor, 1971. From opera-films for the big screen he moved on to other genres of movies. It was clear that his subsequent interests would lie in the special expressive potential of the cinema.
In those days he found enjoyment in the collecting of art, in racing thoroughbred horses, in rifle-marksmanship, and billiard games (three passions which he continues to cultivate). Between time spent in Rome and New York and elsewhere, between his beloved bicycle racing and horse races, he found time to compose lyrics for songs which would then be set to music by Anna Moffo and which were issued on recordings by RCA.
Producer of Carosello shows and fashion show director
For RAI he also entered the field of publicity, like so many other well-known directors, conceiving and producing in union with Sandro Bolchi many of the Carosello film-shorts that were best known during that long unforgettable period of artful publicity.
“Carosello” was started in 1957 with a kind of format of dramatized commercial promotions. It emphasized short filmed sketches, acted scenes, cartoons, etc., each given a complete story, while the commercial product being promoted would be cited on behalf of the sponsor only in a brief passage, always placed at the end, to give the impression of its being a public service by RAI.
Precisely because of the theatrical format, RAI had contracted-out the entire conception and production to private companies under the supervision of SIPRA (an agency that specialized in radio, television and cinema publicity). It involved the cream of the crop of national culture of the time. The film-shorts were all shot with the quality and technical expertise of actual theatrical movies, on 35mm film, exclusively in black-and-white. Jean-Luc Godard called them “the best product of the Italian cinema, ” an exaggerated judgment to be sure, but certainly attributable to the fact that the 42,000 filmed scenes that were aired involved about 160 production companies, with an output deemed to be equal to the production of 80 films, about 57% of Italian film production during those years.
While the faces of many famous actors served as effective promotion, less-known to the general public were the names of some of the most praised professionals. They included directors (Luciano Emmer, creator of the theme-logo, Gillo Pontecorvo, Lina Wertmüller, Ermanno Olmi, Pupi Avati, Bruno Bozzetto, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, Mauro Bolognini, Sergio Leone, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Federico Fellini and many others), musicians, set designers, script-writers, writers like Camilla Cederna and others that were quite well-known. Luigi Malerba himself became a producer. There were also many young conscripts who, with these Carosello productions, honed their skills before branching out into other directions. It was only at the start of the 1970s that the general public started to become aware of the importance of the names involved in these shows. It became clear that this uniquely Italian invention had a real cultural value, not merely an economic one, that had fully deserved the historic screenings of SIPRA S. p. A. films at the Museum of Modern Art of New York in 1971.
- With B. L. Vision, where B. L. stands for Bolchi-Lanfranchi, Intervision, and Studio 2D, Mario Lanfranchi conceived and produced many of the most notable Carosello film-shorts aired during the decade 1960–1970. Some examples of the most famous ones: for Ferrero candies the mini-series “Cuore”, based on the children's novel by De Amicis and directed by Sandro Bolchi), for Cirio (“Il paese del sole” – “Land of the Sun”), Banca Commerciale Italiana (with Massimo Inardi, doctor and musicologist, grand prize winner in the champion finals of the show "Rischiatutto" – "Shoot the Works" with the enormous prize of 5, 900,000 lire, the highest winnings ever awarded up until then on European quiz shows. There was also Mobil (“I futuribili”, one of the few publicity films by Mario Bava), Ceat, Ilva, Illycaffè, Liebig (Rina Morelli and Paolo Stoppa in “Vita con i figli” [Life With the Children]. Other sponsors were Montedison, the sweets-manufacturer Alemagna, the aperitif Cynar (the unshakeable Ernesto Calindri saying: “Against the strain of modern life, just drink some Cynar!”).
- “Our specialty was in offering the entire package already prepared, from the concept to the directing. The client had everything already; he could even do without an advertising agency. ” – “As far as directing, I think I worked on only one or two, because I didn’t like to direct them. ” – “I believe I did my directing contribution with actress Franca Valeri. On our own we even came up with promotional slogans. That time one very successful one resulted: ‘Hard times for the extremely good!’, and the 'extremely good' were Colussi cookies.”
It is estimated that before the death-knell sounded for Carosello, the telecasts had been seen by about nineteen million viewers, an indication of its public success which is even today enviable given the number of TV sets in use. When RAI in 1977 declared the format's abrupt end, they certainly could not imagine that they would have left all of Italy in a state of mourning and sadness during the years following, even afflicting the nation with the diagnosis of "Carosello syndrome", and Italian advertising agencies have had to come to terms with that fact ever since.
If the Carosello pieces made in the course of one decade by the team of Lanfranchi and Bolchi can barely be numbered, the fashion field instead was one less pursued by director Lanfranchi, apart from two instances.
- The first was during the period on RAI, in 1958, when they assigned to him the fashion special "Vetrine" (“Window Displays”), guided with a gentle but firm hand by the first female driving force of the network, Elda Lanza, known as "The Mistress of TV".
- The director created a few years later one of the first choreographed fashion shows for the line of Roberta di Camerino. The Venetian fashion designer, proudly considered by Italians as one of the great expressions of authentic art as applied to the world of fashion, said:
- “There was no longer the ordered display of a series of models in a procession, (…) No, there had to be a thematic spectacle, with scenes, music, and that certain surprise quality that transforms the performance into a kind of magic.”
The man: irony, cult of the ephemeral and cupio dissolvi
It is impossible to distinguish in his case the personality of the man from his achievement. A synthetic definition of the private Mario Lanfranchi, one of the few if not the only one not pertaining to public or social events, is attributable to Vittorio Sgarbi. Among the words of an article that appeared in 1985 on the occasion of the auctioning off of “one of the most important art collections of the postwar period” one reads:
- “[…] it had a strange effect on me, akin to an artificial joy: I would discover later that it was an invincible irony, an awareness of the transience of things. […] Mario Lanfranchi belonged to that rare species of cultured collectors; he was bizarre, not without manias, and attracted by the infinite amusement of the seduction of the female. […] there was in him something at once ceremonious and mocking, like the remainder of a worldly mask that I could not grasp to its ultimate core. […] Overcome by an irresistible cupio dissolvi (i. e. the ‘desire for oblivion’), Lanfranchi distanced himself first from women, then from friends, then from his beloved rare old books and now from his painting collection.”
- The man as collector will be discussed further on as we note here instead some ironies: his awareness of the transience of things which are Pirandellian keys to understanding the apparent sudden variations in the artistic pursuits of the director or in his own personal life.
A "polite gentleman from Parma", a journalist defined him at the time of his separation Anna Moffo, almost as if to excuse himself with readers for the extreme modesty of his most intimate feelings. There had been a progressive deterioration in the couple's relationship, since the many commitments which the singer was strongly determined to honour, to the detriment of her physical and emotional health, led her ever more frequently abroad. The occasions for being together were increasingly rarer. Available periods of time were never convenient.
The marital separation request was submitted in October 1973 and Miss Moffo settled in their New York home, where she already spent most of her time. The divorce was finalized in March of the following year, so that in November she would be able to marry the American billionaire Robert W. Sarnoff, the son of David Sarnoff, founder of RKO and himself president of RCA, for which Moffo was the reigning operatic singer in those years. The frenetic activity of the soprano reached its apex that same year, with a full 220 appearances in 18 operas at the Metropolitan. Not even her second husband, fourteen years older than her and certainly as competent as her first, had succeeded in dissuading here from this treacherous tour de force which wore out her voice for good.
Lanfranchi, in the meantime, was pursued by news reporters with the first among a ravenous and long series of stories through which, however, he never more put at risk his own freedom.
- The indefinable ironic toll of this slightly foolish social mask, which marks almost every dialog and statement issued even in recent times, reveals itself even in his personal choices. An example is his having planned to the smallest detail the somewhat invasive furnishings, modern and very pictorial, of his restored 16th Century villa. It was 'politically correct' on the outside, except for his saving for himself a few indispensable rooms, appointed with period furnishings and of practical use. Or else displaying the front garden in a rigorous monochrome geometry, and having another smaller one in the rear, populated by ambiguous and horrific statues as a kind of human menagerie, deliberately painted in glaring fake tints, each attesting to the "full control of man over nature". Similarly the opening of the gate to the garden releases into the air the melody from La traviata "Libiamo nei lieti calici" (Let's drink from our joyful chalices), while declaring himself abstemious and offering to his guests tea, coffee and fantastic ice creams of which he is a connoisseur and expert. He describes the real as though it were fake, but also fiction as a paradox of reality as in this saying of his:
- “I love to immerse myself in things I don’t love. Love renders everything so obvious and facile.”
- As a second peculiarity of him spotted by the art critic, it would be better to present his own self-definition as a “cultivator of the ephemeral. ” He loves the transitory in order to defend himself from the inevitable transience of things. Always influenced by new and different experiences in every field, even emotional attachments, he finds that he is uncomfortable with stability. This concept, besides being abstract in itself is, is a fulcrum of the most dangerous sort that can exist:
- “I choose ephemeral. I work choosing excess… never choosing moderation.”
- The uncontainable cupio dissolvi, ultimately, which Sgarbi talks about with regard to Lanfranchi's collecting, mirroring irony, futility, and excess, can also be used to explain that periodic desire to make a clean break with the past, whenever he felt compelled to do so. Thus one can, in broad outline, define four periods of his life: first, the Milanese one under the aegis of TV, the second Roman one in search of cinema, then the many years spent abroad, involved with theatrical productions, and the fourth or more recent definitive "return home", implying a return to his cultural roots and his own familiar domain, as a result of the tedium accompanying excessive travels.
The unique and constant presence in the life and work of this uncommon personality remains his innate sense of art and even more so of the theatre, that first true love that he never forgets, for which he had as a young man withdrew from his father's expectation. The shrewd recent question of whether he was more an actor in life or rather a director in the world of artistic creation, drew from him, as a response, this unique declaration with its nostalgic flavor:
- “[…] and so I probably had some qualities, but I was very taken by the concept of creativity and creativity is for the most part the domain of the director…but the idea of appearing on stage and receiving applause…these are things that I regret never having done. ” Trying to clarify a little bit later, he said “I am an optimist, whichmeans I have no fear of the future; I always think it will bring me something interesting.”
Rome, the great adventure, a late-developing love
His move to Rome at the start of the 1960s was determined not only by logistical convenience but also by the desire of the director to apply to movies that hybrid concept already experimented with in the first opera-film of his La serva padrona (1958). Being excited by American film-noir and as a perceptive viewer of all films, accustomed to think in large terms and always urged on by new movements in the artistic world, he wanted to establish himself with his own impulses as a director beyond the limited framework of the "small box". “The real cinema was absent from my career; it was something I had to try.”
But the circumstances and the period were not favorable. Right at the beginning of the 1960s Cinecittà, as a Hollywood-substitute, had reached its finale. The misfortunes and high production costs of Cleopatra, which almost pushed 20th Century Fox into bankruptcy, were giving it the final blow. Producers were increasingly more reluctant to invest capital in projects seen as risky or and not backed by established names or at least guaranteed. (Fellini himself withdrew from the production of Accattone for fear of the lack of mastery of the medium on the part of Pasolini). Lanfranchi was not Roman, had no film background, not even, it can be said, as an assistant director to anyone. Furthermore, he came from the rival medium of television, which was sort of a ‘brand of infamy.’
On the other hand, the attention to the various increasing international obligations of his youthful wife who possessed a strong personality, full of determination and discipline, Italian in heritage but American in her upbringing, took away in those first years together the time and energy that the director needed for himself.
Anna Moffo had risen to the rank of diva in the brief space of one night, thanks to television and her future husband, but the forms of diva-worship had in the meantime changed a great deal. It was the advent of the small screen itself which had been the principal agent of this change: bringing famous personalities, stars or heroes directly into everyone's home as though they were guests, setting into motion an unstoppable social and cultural leveling. Stars had come down from their comfortable Olympus of privacy, ferociously defended by the star system. But in order to maintain their high fame and salaries they became in time chained to their celebrity status and not only to their talents. It became imperative to promote themselves by appearing everywhere, being photographed for newsreels, by paparazzi, or photographed in whatever form possible, even in banal, mundane and false "every day" situations, so that the economic miracle of the time could be reflected more and more in the open-eyed dreams of ordinary people.
There was nothing more normal than that a young woman-turned-diva in a foreign country would want the help of a husband in managing the rapture of fame suddenly thrust upon her at only 23 years of age, and which her prudent consort tried to make her careful about, especially in regard to the crush of ensuing obligations. And so Lanfranchi, the Pygmalion responsible for the start of the great transformation and discoverer of the versatile artistic gifts of his wife, was a unique case in the history of an opera singer. He assumed for years the role of a loving tutor-husband. In the meantime he undertook those rigorous studies of painting which, on the one hand, left him time to spend together with his wife and on the other hand gratified him with an art collection unique in its kind in importance, and even more significantly, as a cultural undertaking.
- In 1962 he courageously produced the first feature-length film of Gian Vittorio Baldi: "Madre ignota – Luciano, una vita bruciata" (Mother Unknown – Luciano, a Burned Life), the authentic biography of a little Roman thief, previously the subject of a short subject by that same director ("Luciano – via dei Cappellari", 1960). While Pasolini's film Accattone (1961), produced by the more powerful Alfredo Bini, benefited in the meanwhile at least in its distribution abroad, Luciano remained trapped in the mesh of religious censorship for more than five years. So concluded Lanfranchi's adventure as film producer. Fortunately that of television producer, of Caroselli and other material, prospered.
In the Roman studios in the meanwhile he had observed the parade of Italian-style westerns with fictitious Americanized names (A Fistful of Dollars came out in 1964). In an attempt to facilitate access in another direction, the director had written four episodes with a western setting, and between one Carosello and another he had suggested to RAI a contract to make a western. The western project, judged too raw for family television programming, was not approved. But right after that, in 1966, RAI signed a contract for the new concept of the short films of TuttoTotò, inaugurated for the first time a custom of external contracting that is today very common. And the following year there was one for the production and direction of the second series of "The Anna Moffo Show", filmed at Cinecittà studios, starring international personalities like the great harpist Nicanor Zabaleta, Andrés Segovia, still considered the greatest guitarist of all time, Earl "Fatha" Hines, top jazz pianist, Ferruccio Tagliavini, international tenor and actor, etc.
Ever determined about making something for the cinema, Lanfranchi had meanwhile re-worked the four western episodes and was constructing a screenplay out of them. After nearly a five-year wait, he finally succeeded in directing the first film of which he was also the creator.
- In reality he would have liked to tell other stories, but genre films proved to be the easiest route to open that door which remained constantly closed to him and which was never really fully open. He made only four films, all with the brand of his special sense of strongly determined irony, in order to circumvent the limits imposed by scant budgets. In order they are: a western with Wagnerian flavor (Death Sentence – Sentenza di morte, 1967, also called Django abroad); then in rapid succession after the separation from his wife, an adaptation by Carolina Invernizio read in a morbid gothic vein (The Kiss of Death – Il bacio, 1974); a police drama conceived as an urban western (The Merciless Man – Genova a mano armata, 1976), an Italian title imposed by the distributor. Abroad it remained the one desired by the director, namely L’uomo senza pietà; and finally a desperate bourgeois love story, though still often catalogued in the erotic film genre (The Mistress is Served – La padrona è servita, 1976).
All of them became cult films or super-cult films years later, to be analyzed and re-evaluated by critics who, under the American influence, imparted a proper historical dimension to all the so-called Italian B-movies of that period. “The inaugurator, ” like a betrayed lover, had unconsciously plotted his own re-evaluation.
- In the middle of these he directed two other opera-films, La traviata (1966) and Lucia di Lammermoor (1971), both with Anna Moffo, who never performed in any other type of film for him. The director maintained that neither his own films nor the others which she had in the meantime performed in, measured up to her real potentials as an actress.
- The last film, Venezia, Carnevale, un amore, 1981 (Venice, the Carnival, a Love), with Rudolf Nureyev, Peter Ustinov, Carla Fracci, Charles Aznavour, has a story in itself not strictly cinematic in origin, and is deeply felt and suffered. At the start it was to be a short, then became a medium-length work, and ended up as a feature film at the insistence of the Fondazione Venezia Nostra, in the framework of the international campaign of UNESCO for the safeguarding of Venice.
The film historian Carlo Montanaro, who appears in the credits as an assistant to the director, writes: “The really curious thing is that the film constitutes the sole attempt at a musical made in Venice, if one excludes purely invented trivialities and Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You, where, however, there are no dance numbers in Venice. ” In Italy the film was seen only on RAI, but it received theatrical distribution to movie theatres in various other countries, including America and Japan, and the returns were used for preservation projects. In order to re-program the film for the retrospective "Venice and post-Romantic 19th Century heroines – Venice, the City of Women – from Senso to Sissi, curated by Gian Piero Brunetta in the setting of the 2011 Carnival of Venice, and not being able to trace either a positive print in good condition or a negative, which had disappeared along with the widow of the producer, it was specially re-edited from a work copy that remained in the possession of the director.
Paradoxically, this unwanted film is the one where the author's fountain of dreamlike fantasy and irony shines through more fully, both amused and amusing. However the violently conflicting relation with protagonist Nureyev had given him the final coup de grace. He felt once again the urge to change his life, to seek new challenges. He packed up and with determination took the road of a cultural emigrant, and thus withdrawing from active participation, with some occasional succumbing to the temptation of his love for the theatre.
Theatre, "my love", visits and re-visits
From the floor-planks of the stage to the small screen, from phantasmagoric displays en plein air or to the big productions that swelled the boxoffice receipts in the West End or on Broadway, from the directing of operatic productions to filmic ones, the mark of the theatre is for Mario Lanfranchi like a second skin, a habit never shed.
- In 1955, at the start of his collaboration with RAI, he had created also directing and the live television telecast, the first of his best known spectacles, that of the Historic Matildic Procession at Quattro Castella, the first celebration of the coronation of Matilde of Canossa. As was his custom, he oversaw not only the direction but had conceived it in its entirety, including the field games (the game of the bridge, the joust of the ring, etc.) Its success was such that the celebration soon became a ritual up to the current year of 2012 in its 47th presentation. Queen Matilde was played by Maria Fiore; since then it was a tradition, until a short time ago, that the royal mantle would rest each time on the different shoulders of the most beautiful and famous Italian actresses.
- In 1959 it was the turn for The Landing of Garibaldi, at Sesto Calende. More than 1,000 extras in costume reenacted the battle between the Hunters of the Alps regiment and the Austrian troops, which allowed the General to enter Lombardy in victory.
After having "fled" from RAI in 1960 and his move to Rome, along with his crisis of rejection from opera productions and the like, he restored his strength in the theatre, supervising for television, from outside, a series of adaptations and dramatic directing projects and the first cycle of The Anna Moffo Show. Unfortunately, in the archives of RAI, unless there are some fortuitous discoveries, only two films survived of the director's recorded TV dramas – one for Harlequinade by Terence Rattigan and one for S'egli tornasse (If he were to return here) by Orio Vergani – and only a few seconds of the TV movie Ritorno dall’abisso (Return from the Abyss). In addition, by the mid-1960s he had lost interest and, as a result, he became bored with even directing TV plays (the box was and continued to remain too small). So, while on the one hand he continued to conceive and produce Carosello pieces, on the other hand he invented that Festa Italiana (Italian Celebration) which topped in 1966 the box office records at Madison Square Garden.
- Once more in 1966 he turned to the stage to produce and direct works of English-language playwrights, premiering a number of plays, with the Tieri-Lojodice companies (Help Stamp Out Marriage – ital.Uscirò dalla tua vita in taxi – by Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse), then Life with Father – ital.Vita col padre – (1968) with Rina Morelli and Paolo Stoppa, veteran performers in that same play under Luchino Visconti.
Between these two events he had found time to produce the second series of The Anna Moffo Show (1967).
- In 1973, when he had already moved away from film directing for a period of time, he directed Alberto Lionello and Valeria Valeri in the play The Secretary Bird (Le Canard à l'Orange) – ital L’anatra all’arancia – 1967, by William-Douglas Home. Two years later it was remade as a movie with a Boccaccio-like flavor by Luciano Salce, but the film, despite the presence of Monica Vitti, Ugo Tognazzi, and the lovely Barbara Bouchet, was unable to duplicate the success won by the play.
- It is worth remembering the experience in Italy at the start of the 1990s with his own company of young people, Proposed Theatre Company of Mario Lanfranchi, with which he had productions of works by three modern authors in ironic and grotesque plays on the theme of the eros: Low-Level Panic (ital. Esperienze erotiche a basso livello) by Clare McIntyre, already known as a theatre, TV, and movie actress, then as talented playwright; Sexual Perversity in Chicago (ital. Perversioni sessuali a Chicago), a corrosive text by playwright David Mamet, used as the basis in 1986 for the film About Last Night with stars Rob Lowe and Demi Moore; and finally two 'black comedies' by the prematurely departed Joe Orton, Funeral Games (ital. Delizie funerarie) and The Ruffian on the Stair (ital. Un criminale alla porta). It is one of the theatre experiences that the director recalls with great pleasure, not only for the success accorded it, but for the enthusiasm it inspired in the work of the company.
- In that period, moreover, he already was spending periods of time in London (from 1980) to create and keep up with productions of big musicals like Lust and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or David Beaird’s 900 Oneonta at London's Old Vic and Daphne du Maurier’s September Tide at the Comedy Theatre with Susannah York, which broke the bank for several years in succession at West End and Broadway box offices. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang alone ran for a good six years in London and then again in New York.
Once returned to Italy, he went to live in his villa at Lesignano de' Bagni (Parma), where he gave life to a first-of-a-kind event Villa Lanfranchi opens its gates, or more appropriately "spreads wide its gates", given the fact that admission was free. It became then, for several years, a pleasing and well-attended repeated event under the title Performances in the Villa, shows of various types, as he himself likes, comprising theatre, music, jazz and rock concerts, in which many artist friends took part. On these occasions, and for other manifestations of a cultural nature, he would occasionally dust off his own past as an actor and writer.
For a number of years he has returned regularly on television, no longer behind the camera but as a regular guest of broadcasts of music and entertainment and he is also often invited to recall, with his inexhaustible and entertaining verve, past events that he had been part of or which he had witnessed. For Parma TV he recorded three cycles of broadcasts, released on DVD as well, in which he reads the modern fables of Andreina Chiari Branchi. And occasionally he once again offered to his audience prose selections and poetry in his beloved Parma dialect.
Theatre in 360 degrees.
Collections and hobbies, myths and not myths
An unrepeatable undertaking: creation and dispersion
- His mythic collection of old paintings and sculptures emerged by chance, from a lightning-like attraction that happens to those who collect things out of passion and not as an investment. In that collection appeared the names of Donato de' Bardi, Pier Maria Pennacchi, Giuseppe Bottani and also Giovanni Busi “il Cariani”, Giandomenico Tiepolo, Jacopo Bellini, a Vincenzo Foppa that perhaps could have been a Montorfano.
- More than 180 paintings and about fifty sculptures can now be seen spread among other important private collections or else in Italian or foreign museums, including the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, the Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
His first Roman residence hosted a boldly displayed collection of modern paintings, but when Lanfranchi leased for his wife Anna Moffo the most beautifully decorated and tranquil palace, the Palazzo del Grillo, he thought that they were not well-suited to those very old rooms. At an auction of a collection belonging to Konrad Adenauer he acquired a canvas which he had over a while taken a fancy to. Seeking confirmation by an expert on the value of the piece, not in economic terms but artistic ones, he had the audacity to write to none other than the fearsome and gruff Federico Zeri, who, amused instead by such ingenuousness, examined the painting and declared that, yes, it was an attractive piece, but also a piece of worthless junk, a fake! That encounter had a shattering effect on the director, not because of the disaster of his first purchase, but because he left the home of Zeri, who would become one of his dearest friends, madly in love with old masters paintings.
Under the wise and patient guidance of such a teacher, who, as also affirmed by Vittorio Sgarbi in the above-noted article, turned out to be the complete opposite of what was rumored, he devoted himself for long years to assiduous studies, unto the smallest details, of the masters of painting, while his collection became enriched with ever more important new pieces, discovered on his own amid private holdings, at small auctions, at antique dealers or even espied in larger auctions where they passed unnoticed. The greatest reward for his humble and diligent scholarship, as he tells with justified pride, came once from Zeri, who was unable to go in person to view a painting, and asked Lanfranchi himself to go in his place to examine for authenticity and state of conservation a great painting attributed to Il Grechetto (Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione).
- “And so (from Lanfranchi) I learned, – Sgarbi states – “what no university can teach, (…) that finding them was a question of the eye more than of money, and that it is necessary to know how to see what others don’t see (…) a principle contrary to that which had inspired the famous collection of Luigi Magnani consisting only of important-sounding names (…) Lanfranchi preferred the unique and unrepeatable masterpiece of the so-called minor master. And further: His research had become more feverish after the divorce from his wife, who in leaving had taken with her half the collection, primarily the Primitives, which she said she did not know how to separate herself from (She would shortly after that auction them off at Christie's in New York, because of their incompatiobility with her new husband) (…) so Lanfranchi gave up one of the most important collections of the postwar period. He spoke of it as though he were dead, even though he is quite alive and very happy, because (…) taken by an uncontainable cupio dissolvi (…) the entire Lanfranchi collection will be placed on the auction bench (…) and at the end he concludes: And so our words, with melancholy, brighten a sunset.”
The director comments elsewhere: "(…) I had gotten divorced and I had split up my collection. It was divided in half and I became aware that I was dedicating much of myself to these inanimate objects, and taking away potential love for human beings (…) all at once love disappeared."
- "I no longer believe in art as a transcendental act; I believe in art as a sublimation of craftmanship. Beautiful but not divine."
As far as the decision made to disperse the entire collection, he corrects the melancholy sunset, citing a phrase that had inspired him:
“I ask that my paintings and my prints (…) that is, the things which have brought joy to my life, be spared the frigid tomb of a museum and the outrage of the vacuous stare of the indifferent passer-by, and that they instead be dispersed via the hammer of an auctioneer, and that the joy which the acquisition of each of them has procured for me, be given anew, by each of them, to an heir with tastes similar to mine." (Edmond de Goncourt)
Besides this he also rid himself of noted collections which he was, without being untrue to himself, the first to create, the inaugurator:
- Illustrated rare books, 15th to 18th century (especially of feasts, ceremonies and origins of the theatre); the collection, assembled in London and New York, resides now in the Getty Center of Los Angeles.
- Antique fountain pens, among which a very rare silver Waterman pen with a conic cap and also a rarer Parker, both decorated with snake figures, which Lanfranchi bought in an auctio for a sum that broke the world records, 16,000 pounds sterling for the former in 1994 and 14,000 for the latter in 1993. The “Waterman Snake, ” the sole surviving exemplar of the five known to collectors, can now be found in a museum in Tokyo.
- Nevertheless, he keeps and occasionally adds to some collections that still please him, period iron work and locks, gold and silver rattles, antique copper kitchen utensils, hand-crafted artisan furniture pieces, collections that pay respect to his new belief in artisan craftsmanship.
- Film Collections. He now no longer is dedicated to "inanimate objects". His collector's soul has turned to a passion for films, which in reality are not “inanimate. ” He owns about 21,000, whether favourite titles or not, both Italian and foreign, from the silent period up to the 1970s as well as the films of a few other more current directors.
With the persistent ambition of a lover and collector, within a vaster world collection, he is trying to put together one of the entire Italian cinema, always up to the 1970s, with “special dedication to the early period in which the Italian films dominated the world market. "When I was studying at the Academy, it was said that Italian films were almost entirely lost, with a few rare exceptions. It was (critic-historian) Gian Piero Brunetta who told me that many of the films had been saved and brought to new life by fine researchers and excellent restoration experts. From there came my morbid interest in the Italian silent cinema, the discovery of the diva cult (I had met Lyda Borelli, the wife of Vittorio Cini, when I was little more that a child, an unforgettable memory), and a reborn interest in the American (and German) silent film, which owed a great deal to those Italian productions, as seen today with a very different eye.” And then there are smaller collections within the mother collection: American film-noir, cinema and the theatre, films on Venice, westerns, films dealing with billiards.
The sports enthusiast, or the spirit of emulation
Billiards. Another great passion. In the Lanfranchi household the professional green table (Italian style, without pockets) is enthroned in the center of a sober room all by itself and in a corner only the billiard-stick holders and some photos on the walls. Twice a week, every week, matches are played (five-pin and nine-pin billiards). Among his personal friends and playing partners are the four times world champion Gustavo Zito, moving on later to the most generously sponsored sports poker, and even before "Lo Scuro" (The Dark One) of the films of Francesco Nuti, alias, whose memory will be forever linked to the difficult ottavina reale (royal octave) shot created by him.
Marksmanship: shooting sport and clay pigeon shooting. Even this is a continuing weekly ritual, sometimes outdoors with clay pigeons, or else in the shooting gallery that he had built in the basement. The villa was the hunting lodge of his maternal grandfather, who had put into his hands rifles and pistols when he was still a boy, but the director never loved hunting despite the sporting tournaments, his over-and-under 686 E Trap Beretta and a small collection of personal firearms.
Bicycle racing. He has always been an indomitable enthusiast and an expert, in which he succeeded years later in involving even his Anna Moffo. A little before the start in the directing of opera, RAI in 1955 had assigned him the first live television transmissions directly from the world championship event at the Vigorelli Cycle-racing Stadium of Milan, and the start of Giro d'Italia race. He rode until a few years ago on the seat of a "supersport" bicycle, later abandoned because of traffic, and hardly satisfield by his essential hour of daily exercycle workout while he watches films from his collection.
Horses and greyhounds other myths. The latest but hardly the last.
- Since his years in Milan Lanfranchi owned race-horses with which he harvested the most important prizes in Italy and abroad in the trotting and galopping categories. A name to be remembered by everyone is Fury Hanover, the trotter so often at the top in the list of world winners during the 1960s. Even today, on web forums, enthusiasts of this sport remember “During the times of Fury Hanover…”
- The kennel of greyhounds came out of another casual event. During his residence in England, the director had been taken unwillingly to a greyhound track from where also he emerged crazed by an excess of adrenaline and started to buy greyhounds, one of which in particular turned into a champion racing dog. He tried to shoot down the very high price but didn’t succeed because the breeder preferred instead to give him as a gift a puppy which Lanfranchi named “El Tenor”. It was this very dog, the one given to him as a gift, that came out top winner of all time in flat and obstacle courses (102 wins, a record still unbeaten in the history of the sport.) In 1999 it was El Tenor that was named outright "Sportsman of the year” in England, one that left its trophy cups to its owner but demanded at the end of each race a reward of ten hamburgers with a side of French fries while commentators turned to Lanfranchi calling him the “Sheik Mohammad of greyhounds” (referring to the biggest horse owner in the world). The Romford Greyhound Stadium erected a bronze monument to the dog and even the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera dedicated a front-page article complete with photos. Granted stud status in 2000 after a final inevitable victory, the dog ferociously refused to mate at all; it died two years later from a heart attack, at only six years of age, perhaps from sorrow, asserts the director, showing his usual ironic smile to tell the story:
- “For the first time ever, I had succeeded
- in making the front page of Corriere,
- though not for my film work,
- but instead because of my dog.
- And when I met in a restaurant
- my publisher friend Franco Maria Ricci,
- he introduced me to the woman by his side
- saying: ‘this is the only case
- of a man supported by a dog!’
Opera TV Productions and films
(This is only a partial list. For the complete list go to Mario Lanfranchi
- 1956 – Madama Butterfly – Anna Moffo, Renato Cioni, Miti Truccato Pace, Afro Poli
- 1956 – La fanciulla del West – Gigliola Frazzoni, Ken Neate, Mario Petri
- 1956 – La sonnambula – Anna Moffo, Danilo Vega, Plinio Clabassi
- 1958 – Turandot – Lucille Udovich, Franco Corelli, Renata Mattioli, Plinio Clabassi
- 1959 – Lucia di Lammermoor – Anna Moffo, Nicola Filacuridi, Dino Dondi, Ferruccio Mazzoli
- 1960 – Tosca – Magda Olivero, Alvinio Misciano, Giulio Fioravanti
- 1962 – La serva padrona – Anna Moffo, Paolo Montarsolo
- 1968 – La traviata – Anna Moffo, Franco Bonisolli, Gino Bechi (film)
- 1971 – Lucia di Lammermoor – Anna Moffo, Lajos Kozma, Giulio Fioravanti, Paolo Washington (film)
- Director M. Lanfranchi is frequently credited with performances as a film actor (even by IMDB), while it's a mere case of homonimy. His only appearance in a film has been a cameo (The Doctor) in his own The Merciless Man (Genova a Mano Armata, 1976), and that was only to help the production in trouble for the sudden illness of an actor. See director's disambiguation and clarification in his long interview with film critic-historian Renato Venturelli, in Cinema & Generi 2010, Le Mani 2010, quoted in the bibliography.
- A highly prestigious Italian award, granted to a restricted range of people who have rendered exceptional services to the world of opera, which has reached this year (2011) its 27th edition.
- Vittorio Sgarbi, "Chi offre di più? Metto all'asta la mia vita" (Who's bidding more? I'm auctioning my life), Europeo, XLI/n.50/dec. 14, 1985, pp. 109–110
- Daily Express, Sat 1 Oct 1994 Page 22