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Virginia Zeani: “Operatic Recital”

spacer Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Gavazzeni; Orchestra dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Roma, Patanè. No texts. Decca 480 8187

Genuine Classics

Decca gathers a generous selection of arias from Virginia Zeani, one of the outstanding singing actresses of the twentieth century.


The much-admired Romanian soprano Virginia Zeani (b. 1925) was rightly considered to be one of the last century’s outstanding singing actresses. Richard Bonynge called her voice one of the four greatest in his experience — the others were Sutherland, Tebaldi and Flagstad — and Teresa Stratas recalled Zeani’s Violetta as the most beautiful she had either seen or heard. When Zeani was in her early thirties, and less than a decade into the career that would eventually encompass sixty-nine major roles, she made the two recital LPs that are represented on this Decca CD. Aside from studio recordings on the Romanian Electrecord label (La Traviata, Tosca and a Verdi–Puccini recital LP), the bulk of Zeani’s recordings are pirates of live performances. 

As part of its Most Wanted Recitals series, Decca presents Zeani in a “Greatest Hits” collection — a generous eighty minutes of arias recorded in 1956 and 1958. First up are the two Lucia arias, followed by Bellini’s Amina  and Elvira. The soprano is not a “show pony”; coloratura is dispatched cleanly and from character. Zeani, who first sang Violetta when she was twenty-two, achieved a career total of 648 Traviatas; she is represented here by Violetta’s Act I  and Act III arias. From then on, the CD is devoted to Puccini heroines, and it is here that Zeani demonstrates the gift that was even greater than the beauty and technical security of her singing: her technical prowess gave her a greater range of vocal possibilities when singing verismo. So often, studio performances are musically accurate, sonically sound but dramatically flat. Zeani manages to pitch her performances beyond the microphone — but not in a way that feels calculated or intellectualized. 

Her lean voice is even up and down the scale and has a beautiful femininity to it. It is enlightening to hear the Puccini ladies one after the other; they are “sisters,” to be sure, but in Zeani’s hands, each is an individual who faces her life challenges uniquely. Mimì’s Act III anguish , Lauretta’s teenage passion , the quiet strength of Liù , Cio-Cio-San’s resolve , Manon’s hopelessness  — like a method actor, Zeani draws from the deep well of her imagination to breathe musical life into each one. These are classic performances, and Decca is to be applauded for restoring them to the public.

As is the case with the rest of the issues in this series, the accompanying booklet contains no biographical or theatrical information. Instead, it features three blank pages, plus a fourth with fifteen centered lines of recording information (original dates and places, producers, sound engineers and equipment) and a special acknowledgement. On the back page, there is a photo of the original LP back cover, replete with, one supposes, information about the singer and the material she has recorded. Alas, it’s unreadable even under a magnifying glass. I can’t help wondering why Decca didn’t either spring for bona fide liner notes, especially considering that the wonderful Zeani, while busy singing on the world stages for more than three decades, was woefully under-documented commercially — or skip the booklet and just slip a single sheet in the jewel case. spacer 


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