BY CHARLIE HANDELMAN
I attended an opera party many years ago at which the the name of the famous Roumanian-Italian diva Virginia Zeani came up in conversation; one of the fellows there told me that his house was actually called "Casa Zeani." I asked him if his home was a "shrine" to this soprano, and he responded that in some ways it was, for he had many photos of her, all her recordings, mostly live, and held a special place in his heart for her. He also knew her as a good friend, and spoke glowingly of her as a warm human being as well as a great singer.
As the years passed, I did hear many recordings of Mme. Zeani, and saw her at the Met in one of her few appearances, as Violetta in Traviata. However, there are so many singers in the world and I have affection for so many of them, that she became one of many...but I could not say she was in the "forefront' of my opera-listening. However, that Traviata did leave a great impression on me, and I do recall feeling it was a great performance.
Only a few years ago, a friend began to play for me some of her recordings (which I had, but if you know me you discover that I often get to hear many singers when someone ELSE plays tapes from my own collection.) He was most interested in the Bel Canto and verismo sopranos like Mme. Zeani and pointed out that she "sings Bel Canto like Verismo" (i.e. she places much emotion into some of the more "empty-headed roles" as did Callas and Scotto.) Then he noted a particular section of Traviata which he felt was an example of the greatness of her art..the way in which she has an uncanny ability to take a tiny phrase or line and produce a heart-wrenching effect. It was a simple two word utterance just before Alfredo enters in Act Four, "Una gioja" spoken to Annina. Well, it broke my little old heart..the way the very great exponents of this brand of careful attention to detail of phrasing did-singers like Callas, Muzio, Favero, Olivero, Carteri, etc. Then he played sections from Rossini's Otello, Donizetti's Maria di Rohan, and I remembered to pull out the Spoleto performance of Menotti's The Consul, where she sings "To this we've come" (In Italian) and rips you apart!!
Little did I dream at that time that a few months later, someone would tell me that she taught at the famous University of Indiana at Bloomington and that I might write to her of my admiration. In my letter I referred specifically to that "Traviata moment" (not even realizing she had sung a grand total of 648 Violettas, not to mention as many as 70 opera roles), and told her of my feelings for what she has given to opera lovers who recognize the special talent she possesses, for only a handful of singers in today's opera world appear to "emote" in very much the style of Zeani and the others of her era and previous generations (Diana Soviero comes to mind first). If one plays the recording of "Son pochi fiori" from L'Amico Fritz of Mafalda Favero as an example and listens to the manner in which she utters the one word "primavera" with the rolled "r" on the "prima" part in a descending phrase, or chooses the Rosanna Carteri Act Three Boheme on Cetra and pays attention to the words "Ma che risponderli, Marcello" you may understand what I mean about attention to meaning of text, attention to the phrase, depth of emotion, etc. Therefore Mme. Zeani has served as an important "link" in the chain of this style. Well, her coaches were some of Toscanini's best, and she studied with the great Aureliano Pertile.
I have now enjoyed a warm friendship with Mme. Zeani, mostly by phone, although I did meet her in New York recently. I find her as much a warm friend as a great diva, and her sense of humor fills me with joy. ("Una gioja" again.). If I am in a down mood I may ask her something like, "Come on, Virginia, let's hear a good chest tone!" (Let's face it, her lows sound like a mezzo anyway) .
Virginia has become my "diva buddy" and I am honored to have someone of her stature to feel I am her friend..but she is such a "non-diva diva" that I can understand this. So now, do I call my house "Casa Zeani?" (I really cannot, with all those Milanov photos on the walls!) I would recommend you check out some of the CD's featuring Mme. Zeani. On Bongiovanni there are two volumes of her art; the great Verdi Alzira with MacNeil, the Werther, Elisa e Claudio, Il Piccolo Marat (where the audience demands an encore of a duet and gives a big "Brava" right in the middle of one phrase) and the commercially recorded Rumanian Tosca and Traviata (there are loads of live tapes). As I look back in perspective into the past century of the vocal art, I am convinced that Virginia Zeani holds a totally unique place in opera history.