La Traviata with Virginia Zeani, surely the greatest Violetta – now 95.9 years old

On 21st October 2020 Virginia Zeani will be 95 years old and this complete performance as Violetta is to wish her a Very Happy Birthday!

Virginia Zeani undoubtedly deserves to be called the “Greatest Violetta” for nobody in the history of the opera has sung the role, to consistent acclaim, in well over 600 performances over a span of 25 years,

Although dramatically, as a sublime character portrayal, Maria Callas’s Violetta was her undoubted equal, vocally Callas could not match the unalloyed lustre with which Zeani sustained Verdi’s demanding vocal lines. I was fortunate to hear them both in the same aged staging at Covent Garden and both, in their contrasting ways, were magnificent. There was no “production” to speak of and the success of the performance depended entirely on the quality and conviction of the principal soprano. With Zeani and Callas success was never in any doubt and memories of their magnificent performances are as vivid as ever.

Here Zeani sings the whole role of Violetta in an outdoor performance of ‘La traviata’ from the Arena Flegrea, Napoli in 1956 when she was 30 years old. The sound recording is illustrated with continuous sequences of stills, carefully timed to fit the music, which illustrate as closely as possible the action taking place on stage.

Throughout the mid 20th century Virginia Zeani was widely recognised, both vocally and visually, as the supreme Violetta, rivalled in the role only by Callas in her physically wasted interpretation. At Covent Garden Zeani was described as “the most Verdian Violetta heard for many years” and this rings true throughout every note she sings. Hers is a full throated, passionate interpretation, giving free rein to Violetta’s unquenchable spirit which always tries to overcome any physical infirmity

So in demand was Zeani, as the ideal Violetta, that from her debut in 1948 to her last performance in 1973 she is reckoned to have sung the role some 648 times – an average of once a fortnight. This was interspersed with over 60 other principal roles and performance annals of Opera magazine show her, year after year, as the most hardworking of singers. Despite this, in her magnificent 34 year career she only ever cancelled two performances.

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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. They are now posted on YouTube so that new opera lovers can freely experience and enjoy her remarkable performances.


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