Virginia Zeani, renowned and versatile opera diva, dies at 97
The death was announced by her son and only immediate survivor, Alessandro Rossi-Lemeni, who said the cause was a cardiac respiratory illness.
Ms. Zeani was equally at home in the standard Italian repertory, in the lighter Wagnerian soprano roles, in the bel canto operas of Rossini and Donizetti, or in one of the many world premieres that she sang. The most notable premiere was Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” at La Scala in 1957, in which she sang the role of the volatile and conflicted Sister Blanche.
But her specialty was the role of Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata,” which she sang more than 600 times after her first performance in 1948 in Bologna, most of them at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala. Violetta is a huge challenge for a singing actress, because every act makes different musical and dramatic demands.
The lively first act, when Violetta falls in love amid the elegant grandeur of a Paris party, has most of the high notes. Act II is all drama — the character is suddenly matured and facing the most painful decision of her life — while the final act is a protracted death scene, complete with final reunions and religious awakening.
In an interview this week, Matthew Epstein, a impresario based in New York with more than 50 years’ specialty in the vocal repertory and a friend of Ms. Zeani’s, called her “the best all-around Violetta” he ever witnessed. “Vocally, physically, histrionically, linguistically — she had it all, and she embodied the role.”
Yet Ms. Zeani had an unusual career in the United States. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in November 1966, only a few weeks after the company had moved into its vast new Lincoln Center home.
Preparations were chaotic. She came directly from the airport, had no rehearsal whatsoever, and was effectively thrown onto the stage to sing “Traviata” in an auditorium that even the stagehands barely knew. The audience was ecstatic, but the critics were not (although both the New York Times and the Daily News noted a distinct improvement after Act I).
In any event, Ms. Zeani sang only two of her three scheduled performances and returned to Europe.
In 1967, she sang a single outdoor performance of another Verdi opera, “I Vespri Siciliani,” with the Met touring company in Newport, R.I. She appeared in the house only once more, when the visiting Rome Opera brought Rossini’s rarely heard setting of “Otello” to New York in 1968.
Apparently, Rudolf Bing, the Met’s all-powerful general manager, had wanted to bring Ms. Zeani to the United States to stay for an extended period of time, and she had refused. She had married the Italian operatic bass Nicola Rossi-Lemeni in 1957 and she liked her life in Europe, where the opera world was more casual.
“I had no manager,” she told the Palm Beach Post in 2013. “People heard you were successful in Milan and so forth, and they would book you. After I married Nicola, I was not living the life of a great diva. I like a quiet life. In Rome, Nicola and I were invited every night to clubs and so forth, and I never went. I was afraid that the cigarette smoke would hurt my voice.”
A highlight of her Italian years was the world premiere of “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” She found the composer charming. “He was elegant in all his manifestations,” Ms. Zeani told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in 2004. “Very simple, smiling at the time. If he had something to say it was only to correct the intentions of the phrasing.”
“Everybody was expecting something miraculous,” she added. “As soon as we started rehearsals, it was so easy to learn. The music was like a poem. You learned with interest, you learned with religiosity.”
“Dialogues” was a huge and durable success: It is one of the only late-20th-century works to enter the standard operatic repertory. Ms. Zeani made her last stage appearance in the work, when she played the more senior role of Mother Marie at the San Francisco Opera in a gala performance in 1982.
By then, she and her husband were newly established as voice teachers at Indiana University’s music school. She continued teaching there after Rossi-Lemeni’s death in 1991 and was made distinguished professor of music in 1994. Her pupils included Vivica Genaux, Sylvia McNair, Marilyn Mims, Mark Nicolson and Elizabeth Futral, all of whom went on to sing with major companies.
After Ms. Zeani’s retirement in 2004, she enjoyed her most thorough worldwide renown. She had recorded sparingly, but old clips of her performances had made their way to social media, and she found a new generation of enthusiastic followers.
“To hear Virginia Zeani sing — thank God for YouTube! — is to be catapulted back to a time when the Earth was well-populated with hugely gifted operatic sopranos whose partisans made the case for their favorite’s superiority with the same fervor baseball fans brought to the eternal question of Mantle vs. Mays,” journalist and author Scott Eyman observed in the Palm Beach Post.
“Her presence on YouTube in a series of films made for the Italian RAI network, as well as a lot of bootleg recordings, constitutes a great discovery,” he continued. “Zeani had a dark, sensuous voice that spanned just under three octaves, moving easily over the notes with no sense of stress, communicating a passion that elevates the notes.”
She was born Virginia Zehan on Oct. 21, 1925, in Solovastru, a Transylvanian village in the heart of Romania. Her parents were farmers who soon moved to Bucharest to pursue a better life.
A performance of “Madama Butterfly” that she heard when she was 9 inspired her to become an opera singer. Ms. Zeani made her debut in a Bologna performance of “La Traviata” at 22. She had told the company that she had sung the role before, then stitched her own gown from fabric she had bought in a street market.
She met her future husband while appearing with him in operas in which she had only seen him in full dress in elderly roles. She said she was startled when she learned that he was a handsome man and still in his 30s. She accepted his proposal of marriage within a month.
On the occasion of her 90th birthday, Ms. Zeani gave an interview to the website Gramilano in which she declared herself happy but also suffering from arthritis and other ailments.
“After dying so many times and falling down on stage in La Traviata and so on, by the end of a life there is pain everywhere,” she said. “But I can still breathe and think and love.”