Maria Callas, Violetta & "The soprano she was frightened of" the great Virginia Zeani
Published at : 18 Jan 2021
"Virginia Zeani, you are one of the very few sopranos my wife is frightened of." So said Callas's husband Giovanni Battista Meneghini to Virginia Zeani, who told me herself. Why then is Callas so famous and Zeani relatively so little known?
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NB The recordings of Mme Virginia Zeani are mostly from radio broadcasts or private or in-house tapes. They were saved by her fans and later, without her permission, sometimes transferred to CDs by companies who pay her no royalties.
The answer has nothing to do with quality as they were both, in their contrasting ways, magnificent, but rather it concerns prudent career management and commercial recordings. My video is a tribute to both these great singers and a first attempt to redress the balance.
I heard both Maria Callas and Virginia Zeani in their prime, as Violetta, from the gallery of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. They were both wonderful and easily the most thrilling and memorable sopranos in the Italian repertoire. I could not bear to be deprived of either.
Maria Callas admired and even feared Zeani who, as well as being a fine singer and impressive actress was a stunning beauty. Virginia Zeani in turn greatly admired Callas as a formidable performer whom to this day she describes as "a Lion".
Callas had such precocious natural ability that aged only 18 she sang Tosca and in her twenties would alternate Wagner's Brunnhilde with Bellini's bel canto Elvira. This combination of sublime musicality with vocal recklessness meant at the age of 41 she retired from the operatic stage and in her later concerts was but a shadow of her former self.
By contrast, although only 22 when she made her debut as Violetta, Zeani had the more secure vocal technique which enabled her to sing 69 major roles in a taxing 34 year career. Despite always singing with great intensity and commitment she successfully matured from "lyric soprano with high agility" (her words) to spinto and kept her voice in great shape.
As to fame and a long lasting legacy, at the start of her Italian career Callas was fortunate to marry Meneghini who became her manager and dedicated himself to steering her to world wide recognition through live performances and studio recordings.
Meanwhile Zeani, entirely unaided, had begun to gain international recognition but lacked sound career guidance. Her personal beauty even impeded her progress as many a propositioning conductor or manager was left disappointed and disgruntled.
Zeani's marriage in 1957 to Nicola Rossi Lemeni, who had been Callas's favourite basso, brought her the security of Italian citizenship but blocked her advancement at La Scala. It also marked the end of Rossi Lemeni's Columbia recording contract and he never again made records with Callas. Soon after marriage the imminent birth of her son caused the postponement of both her Metropolitan debut and recording contracts with Decca and DG which once lost were never reinstated. The couple decided to quit Milan and make Rome their home base and as they were never short of engagements they agreed that Zeani would manage all their bookings and they would concentrate on live performances. Recordings, they thought, could wait for another day, but this was a big mistake.
Following her affair with Onassis, Callas became a world famous "celebrity" and her live singing career fell away. But the many wonderful studio recordings she had made assured her continued fame. By contrast, as soon as she left the stage, Zeani was remembered only by those who had heard her live.
However, Zeani had a core following of devotees who had collected recordings of her live performances and little by little these found their way into circulation on specialist label LPs and a cult following was born. With the coming of YouTube hundreds of clips of her singing were released and complete operas and arias are still appearing on CDs. The few studio recordings she did make are widely praised and her complete La traviata for Electrecord, made in Romania, is considered one of the most successful ever prodiced. In 2015 her other studio recordings were gathered together and remastered in a 9 CD set "The Artistry of Virginia Zeani"
Virginia Zeani (Musical Artist)Maria Callas (Musical Artist)Italian Opera