Artist Profile: Virginia Zeani

The Romanian soprano Virginia Zeani was undoubtedly one of the finest coloratura sopranos of her generation, although she is surprisingly rarely mentioned among the “greats” and never attracted the attention of the major record companies. Known for her versatile and expressive voice, her singing was characterised by a rich and emotional tone, with a particular agility that allowed her to excel in a wide range of operatic roles, from bel canto to dramatic repertoire. She was considered by many to be the first “modern” Lucia in Donizetti’s opera, making her debut in the role (1950) two years before Maria Callas. While at the beginning of her career she was a great coloratura and contributed greatly to the revival of forgotten bel canto operas by Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, from around 1960 she turned to more dramatic repertoire, singing roles such as Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello, Leonora in La forza del destino, Tosca and Manon Lescaut, Magda Sorel in G.C. Menotti’s Il Consul, the title roles in Verdi’s Aida and Giorano’s Fedora and Senta in Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer (in Italian).

She was born Virginia Zehan on 21 October 1925 in Solovâstru, Transylvania in Romania. She studied literature at the University of Bucharest, but also trained her voice with Lucia Anghel and Lydia Lipkowska, before completing her vocal training with the famous tenor Aureliani Pertile in Milan. In 1948, aged only 23, she made a sensational debut when she stepped in at short notice as Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna. Violetta remained her greatest role throughout her career and she sang it more than 800 times. She continued to study literature and philosophy at the University of Rome, but eventually devoted herself entirely to her singing career.

Zeani sang in several Italian theatres and made her debut at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1956 as Cleopatra in Händel’s Giulio Cesare. In 1955 she made her at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, to where she returned many times, and between 1956 and 1963 she made several appearances at the Arena di Verona Festival. In 1957 she replaced Maria Callas at short notice in Vienna. In 1965 she sang the title role in Donizetti’s Maria di Rohan at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, and a year later she made a sensational debut as Violetta at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She appeared in world premieres of such operas as Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites at the Teatro alla Scala in 1957 and Renzo Rossellini’s L’Avventurio at the Opéra de Monte Carlo in 1968. She has sung in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Geneva and Zürich, Amsterdam, Belgrade, Budapestm, Bucharest, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, Paris, Barcelona, Lisbon, Nice, Philadelphia, Houston (Texas), New Orleans, Berlin and at the major Italian theatres. Zeani died on 20 March 2023 in Florida at the age of 97.

Foto: Broers, F.N. / Anefo | Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication

Notable Recordings

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