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Revisiting Venice

A rainy day in Venice. Friday, June 8, 2007. Photo: JH.
An early spring day in New York with light rain and warming temperatures.

I managed to accidentally scratch my right eye as I was getting out of bed. I can’t even remember how it happened but as the edge of the sheet passed my face, it suddenly felt like I’d poked myself in the eye, or caught an eyelash turning inward. In fact the latter is what I thought happened because the pain was instant and harsh.

For a couple of hours I tried washing my eye out and massaging the phantom lash out, but all to no avail. Finally I went to see the eye doctor who after putting a little dye in my eye saw an abrasion and prescribed eye drops. “It’ll heal and be gone in a few days,” he said, as if it were nothing.

Except it hurt like hell, my eyes were in a constant state of flooding tears, my nose ran, and the pain was completely distracting.

Aside from that profound annoyance,  it caused me to miss one of my favorite events of the year – The Metropolitan Opera Guild Luncheon. For although I’m not a regular opera-goer, this is a lunch about love and devotion. 

  Franco Zeffirelli (Reuters: Tony Gentile).
Opera-goers come in all types, sizes, ranges and interests. You see young housewives (not the New York Desperate type), bankers and businessmen, matrons and manicurists, musicians and visiting firemen all at the big round tables for 12 in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria. Several hundred attend.

It is, in essence, a love-in between the performers and audience, and in these times where civility is often in shambles, and common courtesy has gone the way of all flesh, the opera continues to pull rank, and respect. A few years ago when they honored Pavarotti, more than a thousand filled the room and the balconies above.

I have no doubt there was as large a crowd and maybe more yesterday because the honoree was the great Franco Zeffirelli.

Sr. Zeffirelli, beginning in 1964, has directed such operas as Falstaff, Antony and Cleopatra, Otello, Tosca, Carmen and La Traviata at the Met. He was nominated for an Oscar for his direction of Romeo and Juliet , as well as for his art direction of the 1983 film version of La Traviata.

Aside from his great artistry, Sr. Zeffirelli occupies a special place in my memory. In the 1980s we were neighbors in the Hollywood Hills. Although we never met, he often passed by in his car by and waved as I was walking my dogs (Jack Russells and Shih-tzus) for their dailies and he was heading farther up the hill to a house he often rented from a mutual friend, a New Yorker named Dorothy Strelsin. One Christmastime we quite unexpectedly got a holiday greeting postmarked Rome. It was from the great Zeffirelli. It turned out he was very fond of Jack Russells and was an owner of one himself.
A holiday greeting from Franco Zeffirelli, Los Angeles 1986.
This year is a moment of honor for the director who celebrated his 85th birthday on February 12th. Last Saturday night at the Met, his production of “La Boheme” was performed for the 347th time. Between acts, he stepped onstage and surrounded by the cast, including Angela Gheorghiu (playing the role of Mimi), he received a standing ovation.

Yesterday at the Waldorf, he was sung a tribute by Angela Gheorghiu and delivered a spoken tribute by Jeremy Irons. Besides the hundreds of adoring fans, the luncheon was attended by the Met’s director Peter Gelb, actors Lynn Redgrave and Eli Wallach; as well as  many of the Met’s stars of now and yesteryear, including tenor Marcello Giordani, baritone Thomas Hampson, sopranos Patrick Racette and Kiri Te Kanawa, Barbara Cook, Oscar de la Renta, and Cardinal Egan. Another love-in, I have no doubt; and missed by this klutzy reporter because of a wayward bed linen.

Later on, in the early evening, I’d mopped up
the flow to tears enough to put on my black tie and go down to the St. Regis where Venetian Heritage was holding its annual New York Gala. Thomas Hampson was also appearing (and singing) a recital of American songs in honor of Larry Lovett, one of the major forces behind not only the Venetian Heritage but also decades of American participation in restoring the buildings and art works of Venice.

  Larry and Betsy Lovett
The evening started with a champagne reception and was followed by Mr. Hampson’s recital which included songs by Stephen Foster (including “Shenandoah”), Paul Bowles (music) and Tennessee Williams (lyrics), Viennese composer Erich Korngold who went to live in Hollywood and composed many famous film scores; David Raskin, also a film composer – Hampson performed his famous “Laura,” the theme song of the Otto Preminger classic of the same name; and of course, Cole Porter – “In The Still Of The Night,” and “Begin The Beguine.” During the recital, Mr. Hampson told us that he made his first appearance on the stage of the Met as an audition in 1981. Larry Lovett was one of the judges in the audience.

After the recital, dinner was served on the St. Regis Roof, with music provided by the Peter Duchin orchestra and Venetian décor by Bill Tansey. Mr. Lovett was presented a special  plaque by the Italian Consul who read the letter of presentation from the Mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari. Mr. Lovett founded the Venetian Heritage in 1999 with the late Khalil Rizk. Since that time they have accomplished restorations in Venice, and on the Dalmatian Coast and the Black Sea.

International Chairs of the evening were HRH Princess Guillaume of Luxembourg and HSH Prince Pierre d’Arenberg. American chairs were Ann Nitze and Pierre Durand. Big crowd, with several hundred attending including Deeda and Bill Blair, April and Roddy Gow, Carol Mack with Peter Bacanovic, Mary Sharp Cronson, Raul Suarez, Betsy Lovett (sister-in-law and lifelong friend of Larry Lovett – their mothers were best friends), Alfred and Judy Taubman, Audrey and Martin Gruss, Donald and Muffy Miller, Gary Parr (the current president of the organization), Gillian Atfield, Doda Voridis with her granddaughter Katherine Embiricos, Kenny Lane, Princess Mimi Romanoff, Mark Gilbertson, Mimi Stafford, John Dizard with NYSD's Jeanne Lawrence, Dominick Dunne, Marife Hernandez and Joel Bell, Jamie Figg, Peter and Jamee Gregory, Joanne and Roberto de Guardiola, Diana Quasha, Jackie and Rod Drake, Toto Bergamo (who is Venetian and lives in Venice and does much of the restorations for Venetian Heritage), Patricia Patterson, Anne Bass, Mario Buatta, H.E. The Ambassador of Italy, Hilary and Wilbur Ross, Alexis Gregory, Lee Thaw, Alberto and Annabelle Mariaca, Prince Pierre d’Arenberg, Hiram Williams and Peter Vaughn, Louis Bofferding, Margo Langenberg, and on and on into the night.
Mark Gilbertson, Jackie Weld, and Diana Quasha
Joanne de Guardiola and Jamee Gregory
Raul Suarez and Patrick McMullan
R. Couri Hay and Janna Bullock
Marife Hernandez and Joel Bell
Dame Jillian Sackler and Anne Bass
Louis Bofferding, Hiram Williams, and Peter Vaughn
Polly Onet
Louis Bofferding and Kathleen Hearst
Betsy Lovett and Jamee Gregory
Count von Weinckheim and Shirley Maytag King
Anne Nitze and Marchese Berlingieri
Annabelle and Alberto Mariaca
Katherine Embiricos, Doda Voridis, and Kenny Lane
Larry Lovett and Baroness Mariaca Zerelli Marimo
Roddy and April Gow
Peter Bacanovic and Carol Mack
Pat Patterson and Jamie Figg
Toto Bergamo Rossi, Betsy Lovett, and Gary Parr
Larry Lovett, Betsy Lovett, and Mario Buatta
Tom Kranz and Sharon Handler
Kalliope Karella and Barbara Cirkva
Kim Charlton and Peggy Obenauer
Wilbur and Hilary Ross with Raul Suarez
Carol Mack and Don Miller
Deeda Blair and Pierre Durand
Sharon Handler and Geoffrey Bradfield
Katherine Embiricos and Princess Immaculada Hapsburg

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