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Virginia Zeani, 97, Versatile Soprano Who Sang Blanche in the World Premiere of Dialogues des Carmélites, Has Died

Virginia Zeani

HAILED AS “one of the most important sopranos in the world of opera” by conductor Zubin Mehta, Virginia Zeani was a headliner with major opera companies for more than three decades, performing repertoire that extended from bel canto to contemporary works. Noted especially for the role of Violetta in Verdi’s Traviata, which she sang hundreds of times, the Romanian diva’s career had parallels with those of her contemporaries Maria Callas and Leyla Gencer. All three were foreign-born sopranos active in Italy and associated with the post-WWII revival of bel canto repertoire; each brought dramatic force and insight to roles that had often been dismissed as formulaic showpieces.

Zeani was born Virginia Zehan, on October 21, 1925, in Solovastru, a village in central Transylvania, Romania. While still in her teens, she studied lyric and coloratura repertoire in Bucharest with Lydia Lipowska, a Ukrainian-born soprano who had appeared at the Metropolitan Opera, notably opposite Enrico Caruso. Zeani went to Milan in March 1947 and began studies with famed tenor Aureliano Pertile.

After favorable auditions with several Italian companies, the young soprano benefited from last-minute opportunities as a replacement for established stars. In May 1948, at twenty-two, without stage experience, she stepped in for soprano Margherita Carosio at the Teatro Duse in Bologna as Violetta in La Traviata. That impromptu debut led to further appearances in Bologna and on tours. In 1952, when Callas withdrew from Bellini’s Puritani at the Teatro Communale in Florence, Zeani performed on short notice as Elvira, impressing critics as well as conductor Tullio Serafin.

Outside Italy, she made debuts as Verdi’s Violetta at London’s Stoll Theatre (1953), and in Vienna and Paris (both 1956). Her La Scala debut occurred in 1956 as Cleopatra in the company’s belated first production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare. A year later, she married her costar (in the role of Cesare), bass Nicola Rossi-Lemeni. In further milestones, Zeani made her debuts, in La Traviata, at Covent Garden in 1960 (substituting for Joan Sutherland) and at the Metropolitan Opera in 1966. In both cases, she stepped in on short notice and without stage rehearsals; no long-term engagement ensued with either company.

In a retrospective tribute to Zeani, Richard Bonynge and Joan Sutherland recalled their impressions of one of her performances in the late 1950s. “We had never heard in the flesh a bel canto soprano so opulent, so lush and so velvety. A voice with a great technique, an incredible extension and full of emotion.” John Ardoin, the author of books about Callas, called Zeani “one of the most beautiful women I have ever encountered on an operatic stage.” Yet, despite such skills and attributes, her recently published memoir (co- authored with Roger Beaumont and Witi Ihimaera) repeatedly cites her frustration as a perennial outsider constantly required to prove herself. Unusually strong competition was part of the problem, in an era she called “a golden age,” dominated by the extraordinary figures of Callas, Sutherland, Tebaldi and Caballé—most of whom, unlike Zeani, had exclusive recording contracts with major labels. Zeani was never represented by an agent or given the support of prestigious conductors and directors, which might have helped her negotiate the politics of the Italian opera world.

The newlyweds made Rome and its main opera house their base of operations, where they later raised a son, while Zeani continued her frequent travels throughout Europe, as well as in South Africa, the Americas and the U.S.S.R. Unlike Callas and other star sopranos, she embraced contemporary opera, most memorably the role of Blanche in the world premiere, at La Scala in January 1957, of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, for which she had been selected by the composer. She created roles in works by Raffaello de Banfield and four other composers, also appearing in revivals in the 1970s of such contemporary classics as Poulenc’s Voix Humaine (in French- and Italian-language productions) and Gian Carlo Menotti’s Consul.

She won dozens of awards, including the Commander of the Republic of Italy (1960) and the Verdi Prize (1982), while continuing to add new roles to an extensive repertoire. She performed the Wagner heroines Elsa in Lohengrin (1963) and Senta in Der Fliegende Holländer (1970), both in Italian. In the 1970s, she scored successes in verismo roles such as Adriana Lecouvreur and Fedora). The soprano ventured into mezzo repertoire in the final seasons of her career, singing the Countess in Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame in Genoa in 1978 and, in the year of her retirement from performing, in 1982 in San Francisco, introduced yet another new role—(her sixty-seventh, according to the memoir—as Mother Marie in Dialogues des Carmélites.

With Rossi-Lemeni, she had already started a second career in fall 1980, joining the voice faculty at Indiana University’s School of Music in Bloomington, one of the four leading conservatories in the U.S. Their curriculum included regular master classes, both on campus and abroad. Zeani also became a judge for the Metropolitan Opera auditions. She continued to teach after Rossi-Lemeni’s death, in March 1991, and in 1994 was named Distinguished Professor of Music by Indiana University School of Music. In 2004, she retired to West Palm Beach, Florida.

While Zeani made few studio recordings besides two aria discs for Decca, she called herself one of the “queens of the pirates,” referring to the existence of dozens of bootleg recordings of complete operas from live performances or broadcasts. Her reissued recordings, now widely available, testify to the striking versatility of a singing actress who had constantly widened her repertoire. In bel canto works she is astonishingly fast and brilliant, even in recordings made somewhat late, with a darkened timbre and prominent chest tone. But she can be heard coming into her own, from about 1965, in full-bodied spinto form. It’s perhaps here, rather than in florid roles, that she left the strongest impression. In her recordings of late Verdi roles or those of Puccini and the verists, she demonstrates style, dramatic authority and a vocal dimension not heard in that repertoire in recent generations. —David J. Baker