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Virginia Zeani: "I did 71 different roles, from 1948 to 1982"

Virginia Zeani and Nicola Rossi Lemeni
This is the third and last part of the interview. Virginia Zeani tells the beautiful story of her meeting with Nicola Rossi Lemeni, there are more thoughts on La Rondine and in the end again Angela's voice speaking about how it's like to share emotions on stage with the person you love.
It was impressive for me to listen to Mrs Zeani. She has so many things to say about Puccini and his works. If you have time, listen to the other 7 episodes of the interview. And if you missed the first two parts, you can read them here:

Virginia Zeani: It’s always a matter of relativity when talking about the beauty of the opera. Critics always disregard it when comparing to other operas by Puccini. But I don’t trust them. I loved to sing it. For me Puccini is not more or less important. Puccini is Puccini and you have to sing it how he would have wanted, how he felt the voice and the character on stage.
Luminita Arvunescu: Magda has a few arias in the opera
VZ: She has “Il bel sogno di Doretta” and another one, in pianissimo, that also involves dancing. But the most beautiful part in this opera is the concertato in the second act. I gave an encore for it in many theatres. It wasn’t only my merit. The tenor and the choir were there too.
LA: It’s very interesting how after 25 years after Manon Lescaut Puccini managed his coming back to high class society of Paris.
VZ: Paris was more romantic than Italy, than Rome or Milan. Paris was stylish, full of lights, of women who had the habit of being lovers of rich people. Magda is part of these beautiful women. It was said that the women in Paris were the most beautiful. Then somebody said the Romanian women going to Paris were the most beautiful.
LA: Was it true?
VZ: It’s what I heard. People were telling me “Oh, you’re Romanian”. Romanian meant also beautiful. Women in Paris were not afraid to show what they had. It was not the case in Italy.
LA: Puccini was courageous to depict this atmosphere.
VZ: Yes, he was. He couldn’t have done anything without courage. As courageous as Verdi was when he composed La Traviata. Puccini loved the woman. She was number one in his life.
LA: He loved especially the women with strong personality. Not necessarily young, inexperienced women but mature women who knew how to love.
VZ: The intelligent man needs inspiration in music and love. We learn them but sometimes it’s too late.
LA: In the first act Madga says “love blossoms, protect your heart”. What had Virginia Zeani felt when meeting Nicola Rossi Lemeni? You owe me this answer.
VZ: I performed with Nicola when I replaced Callas in I Puritani, in Florence, in 1952. But I couldn’t see him very well. He was hired at La Scala was only coming to Florence in the evening, to sing with me. Callas was doing Norma in La Scala and she couldn’t be also in Florence to sing in I Puritani. So I sung there and my career started somehow there. Nicola was already dressed when we met and wearing a grey beard (he was my father in the opera) and I always thought he’s more mature. I was 26 and he was 31. He asked me on stage who I was. I told him I was Virginia Zeani and I came from Romania a few years before. This was our first meeting. After that we haven’t seen each other for four years. We met again in La Scala. I had a part in Giulio Cesare by Handel. And Giulio Cesare was Nicola. We liked each other so much that he proposed me after only one week.
LA: And you agreed.
VZ: I didn’t think too much. I waited two or three days to be sure he doesn’t have a previous commitment. I said yes and three moths after we had the civil marriage in Milan. On July 2nd 1957 we had the religious marriage, also in Milan, in a church on Via della Passione. I’ve been Virginia Rossi Lemeni since then. From all the points of view. The decision of having a family was very important.
LA: How long was you marriage?
VZ: We were married for 34 years. And this last July (note: July 2008) it would have been 51 years. I life dedicated to Nicola Rossi Lemeni and to the stage.
LA: Prunier says in La Rondine that the destiny of a woman is written in the palm of her hand. What was your destiny written on?
VZ: It’s important that I got out from Solovastru. People called it a little village. It’s a lovely village with great people. I got to Bucharest for highschool and the first year of the Conservatory. Then I went to Italy and managed to have a career of 34 years and then a career of 24 years of teaching in one of the most prestigious American universities, that’s important. My talent and tenacity helped me a lot. I did 71 different roles from 1948 to 1982. 34 years.
VZ: This dialogue should be as honest as my life was.
LA: That’s why I try to mix information from your private life with facts from Puccini’s operas
VZ: I don’t think that when I was younger things were better or worse. Everything changed, from any point of view. People develop. Most of the times it’s a good development. There are also some problems, but they can be improved.
LA: Going back to La Rondine, do you think that they speak more about love or the characters actually love each other?
VZ: Love is superficial in La Rondine. It’s not a strong one like the love in Madama Butterfly. Or a jealous love that we find in Tosca, or Mimi’s gentle, delicate love. The characters are different but they are all women with a great soul.
LA: What about the music? Does it reach the level of the other operas? It’s not a trap. I just want to know your opinion.
VZ: How could I judge Puccini’s music when I used to cry only listening to it, before learning it better? Even now, when I listen to a performance on the radio, I cry as if listening to it for the first time. I was touched when listening to La Boheme at the Metropolitan, La Boheme in Paris and London, when the sopranos are remarkable. The way Angela is, and I’m not saying it because she’s my follower but she’s a woman of her times. We think alike in an evolutional way.
Weather Angela Gheorghiu is or isn’t Virginia Zeani’s follower in the world of opera, we can still talk about. But there is one fact. Both married to famous opera singers, unique in their ways, they lived everything at double intensity, the emotions but also the success brought in their lives by the other half.
Angela Gheorghiu: This also brings us together. We both know how it is to be married to a great artist. Somebody that does the exact thing you’re doing. We’re like a reflection. The emotions on stage are double. Nobody can understand this unless she or he experiences it. It’s even harder for me because the tenor is always my partner or lover on stage, the one I share all the drama with. When you care about the person next to you, the emotions are overwhelming and I try to overcome them. I can’t be impassible to his feelings. I leave home together with Roberto and I know how he feels, how he slept. All that’s concerning him is also concerning me. And he feels the same, I’m sure. The emotion that we have together is our biggest gain, and it’s also a gain for the audience.
LA: One of the accomplishments of the couple Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna is the studio recording of La Rondine, in 1996.
AG: I managed to promote La Rondine more and more because it’s not staged too often and not too many people understand its importance. It was Roberto’s idea and EMI agreed. We wanted to record an opera important for both of us and not very well known. And the trio, with Antonio Pappano, proved to be a winning one.
LA: In December you’re singing it at the Metropolitan.
AG: Yes. Now it’s a sort of Puccini Festival for me. I’m going to San Francisco for La Boheme, then there’s La Rondine whose premiere is on New Year’s Eve.

LA: Maybe we’ll be able to broadcast live this performance with Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna singing the title roles. La Rondine, the Swallow, on a libretto by Giuseppe Adami, was premiered in Monte Carlo on March 27th 1917. Hoping that you’ve enjoyed this fifth broadcast that I produced in dialogue with the soprano Virginia Zeani, celebrating 150 years from the birth of the Italian composer, I say good bye to you.


  1. Thank you again, Irina, not only for Virginia Zeani, but also for Angela and Roberto !

  2. Dear Irina

    Thank you so much for this. Mme Zeani told me she had done these interviews and was intending to get them translated into English. Did you do this yourself? If so brava, brava!


  3. @CharlotteinWeimar
    Yes, I did it myself. All the translations on the blog belong to me unless I credit somebody else. It took me longer than expected but it's ready. The other 7 episodes are very, very interesting too.