NICOLA ROSSI LEMENI
Nicola Rossi Lemeni was a passionate, gentle and gifted man, a Renaissance Man in the twentieth century. He was an accomplished singer who responded to music scores with acute attention to their requirements which was combined with unique ability to summon from the depths of his own personality remarkable penetrations of character. His stage persona was so commanding that he easily mesmerized audiences. He was tall, handsome and possessed a physique of fine proportions. His insights into the human condition were revealed in his prize-winning poetry. He painted prolifically and was a cultivated essayer and collector of antiquities. And, most of all, a human being of dignity and compassion. Always searching as evidenced in his life and poetry.
Rossi Lemeni’s father, Paolo Rossi, of Italian and Russian stock, was born in Odessa in 1894. His mother, Xenia Lemeni Makedon, born 1896 also in Odessa, was from an aristocratic background and had a cultivated soprano voice. Paolo Rossi was in the Russian military and at the time of the Revolution had to flee the country. He and his wife were in Istanbul when Nicola was born on 6 November 1920. The family moved to Italy where his father restarted his military career as an army officer. Nicola, known as Nicola Rossi, grew up speaking Italian and Russian. He attended his first two years of high school in Rome and the last two in Tripoli (when Lybia was an Italian colony). While in Africa he enjoyed the practice of many sports including swimming, horse riding, fencing and other athletics. As the Rossis were well-acquainted with Feodor Chaliapin’s family, young Nicola played with his children. He came to relish recordings by the great Russian basso and around the age of twelve years began to sing some of the pieces he had learned from them. His vocal talent was obvious and his voice was first trained by his mother. Nicola completed his normal course of studies before he before he attended university to study law in Padua. Italy soon was involved in the chaos of World War II. Sr. Rossi was a colonel in the Italian military and young Nicola was sent to the front as part of his father’s unit where he served as a lieutenant in the Pasubio Battalion. In the Russia campaign, along with his father, Nicola fought bravely and gained two medals of honor. He was twenty-four years old at the end of the War and had had the opportunity to sing for some of the Allied troops.
As he was quite serious about singing, he found his way to be coached by Gigli’s accompanist, Vito Carvenale, and then Ferruccio Cusinati, an assistant to conductors Tullio Serafin and Antonio Guarnieri. He and Renata Tebaldi studied with the same teacher, Ettore Campogalliani. After some concert appearances, he made his operatic stage debut in Venice as Varlaam in Boris Godunov in 1946. He appeared that summer in the reopening of the Arena of Verona, which had been closed from 1940-45, as Ramfis in Aida. He also sang his first big role debut as Filippo II in Don Carlo at the Teatro Verdi di Trieste.
During the early years of his career when Arturo Toscanini heard his voice for the first time, the maestro declared “This is a great voice, this is singing. You cannot be just a Rossi!” So, as soon as it was possible, he legally added his mother’s family name to his and became Nicola Rossi Lemeni Makedon, using only Nicola Rossi Lemeni for the stage. Some managers and record companies incorrectly added a hyphen between Rossi and Lemeni.
He sailed to New York during 1946 to begin rehearsals with a newly formed group to be called the United States Opera Company which was to give its first performances in Chicago early in 1947. Rossi Lemeni was to have made his debut there as Timur in a production of Turandot with a young soprano by the name of Maria Callas in the title role. The company arrived in Chicago but sufficient funds for its opening never materialized. Back in New York, Nicola arranged for Giovanni Zenatello to give Callas an audition for the forthcoming season at the Arena of Verona. After Callas was accepted, she and Rossi Lemeni sailed together on the S. S. Rossia to Naples and traveled by train to Verona. Nicola’s parents lived in Verona and it was there, through friends-in-common, that she would meet the man who became her husband and greatest sponsor, Giovanni Battista Meneghini. Maria and Nicola debuted at the Arena as Gioconda and Alvise on 2 August 1947. Tullio Serafin led the five performances of La Gioconda. Varlaam in Boris Godunov served as his debut, also in 1947, at La Scala in a cast that included two other basses, Tancredi Pasero as the Czar and Boris Christoff as the monk Pimen. Rossi Lemeni and Christoff, unsurprisingly, became world-renowned Borises. Both artists carried forward the legacy set by Chaliapin, following Nazzareno de Angelis and Pasero as the tortured regent in astonishing and disperate interpretations. It was during this run of Boris Godunov that young Virginia Zeani first heard Rossi Lemeni sing.
Rossi Lemeni and Callas appeared again at the Arena of Verona during its 1948 season, she as Turandot and he as Timur, and Don Basilio with Giulietta Simionato in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. In Genoa he sang King Marke in Tristan und Isolde with Callas as the Irish princess. Engagements continued in many theatres throughout Italy and he sang frequently in what was becoming a wide repertoire of operas. Buenos Aires beckoned and he, Callas, Fedora Barbieri, Mario Del Monaco, Mario Filippeschi and other Italian singers sailed there for the 1949 season at the Teatro Colón, and also for appearances in Brazil. Serafin was among the conductors and it was he who led some of the performances at the Colón that were partially recorded during regular radio broadcasts from that theatre. One of the first known surviving recordings of Rossi Lemeni’s voice was made during a performance on 17 June 1949. It consists of Oroveso’s lines in the recitative of ‘Casta Diva’ from Norma with Callas. The basso’s early artistry and vocal accomplishments are well documented in his Cetra 78 rpm discs recorded in 1950-51. There is majesty in the operatic selections and refinement of vocal skills and text in the songs where exquisite control of dynamics and shadings can be heard. One has only to listen to two of the Cetra discs to hear the level which the young singer had then attained. In the unaccompanied ‘Lament of a Siberian Prisoner’ we hear not only the soldier but deep into the singer’s soul. In Ibert’s ‘Chanson de la mort’ from the score that he wrote for Chaliapin for the film Don Quichotte there is evidence of Rossi Lemeni’s acute understanding of Alexandre Arnoux’s text in beautifully executed French. Those words are supported with refined vocalization capped by an exquisite high pianissimo closing. Of Rossi Lemeni’s Chicago recital debut in November 1952, critic Claudia Cassidy wrote “It is a huge voice, blackly Russian, superbly focused, almost unbelievably chameleonic….It is a voice full of shadows”. Joh von Rhem in his obituary of the basso in the Chicago Sun-Times wrote “In his prime he was acclaimed for his smooth, mellow voice and uncommon musical and dramatic intelligence….”
Much has been made of “an early vocal decline” which affected the range at opposite ends of his voice and limited the volume of his instrument. After his operatic debut, Rossi Lemeni began to sing leading roles throughout Italy and at international venues. Serafin was particularly impressed with him and repeatedly engaged him for heavy roles. The combination of the weight of his roles and performances scheduled too close together during the first ten years of his career no doubt took a toll on his physical condition and his voice tired. He developed a rheumatic condition which interfered with his singing and resulted in occasional intense pain for the rest of his life. As it affected him intermittently, there were periods of dry sound and pitch problems which alternated with those of resonant singing for which testimony is given in recordings of his live performances over the span of many years. His dramatic and declamatory instincts were immense and during the periods of vocal difficulty, he relied upon those gifts to emphasize his character-concepts. Virginia Zeani, who heard him in the theatre many times before she performed with him, observed that Rossi Lemeni “was never a basso profundo but a basso cantante with a baritonal sound…Nicola was the slave of the phrase, the meaning of the phrase not the quality or the quantity of the sound”. He was “loving the quality of the words”.
Many persons who witnessed him in live performance reveled in the unforgettable personages which he was able to create. His facial expressions were sometimes like quicksilver and at other times the changes to register emotions and thoughts were made with slow and immense power. Those magnetic eyes provided glimpses into his soul. His body, used constantly as a dramatic tool, was within his complete control. Nothing seemed calculated but as if arising from the moment. No matter the character, he had the grasp of it and the ability to communicate its intricacy to the audience. Contemporary composers, aware of his many gifts, wrote operas especially for him in which they could capitalize on his dramatic and declamatory expressiveness.
Nicola Rossi Lemeni’s commercial recording career spanned the years 1950 through 1977. His first complete opera recording, as Filippo II in Don Carlo which also featured Maria Caniglia, Ebe Stignani, Mirto Picchi, Paolo Silveri and Giulo Neri, was issued by Cetra in 1951. He attracted the attention of EMI and during 1952, Voce del Padrone recorded him as Don Basilio in a complete Il Barbiere di Siviglia with Gino Bechi and Victoria de los Angeles under Tullio Serafin with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano. In London where he had in the same year made his debut at Covent Garden, His Master’s Voice recorded him in operatic arias and scenes with chorus and the prestigious Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Anatole Fistoulari and Tomaso Benintende-Neglia. Callas, who was under contract to Cetra, made test recordings for EMI in January 1953. She was signed by Walter Legge who approved her request for Serafin to conduct her first EMI opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, which was recorded in February in Florence. She recommended Rossi Lemeni for the role of Sir Giorgio in I Puritani which was recorded with Serafin and La Scala forces during March. Further evidence of Callas’s influence was apparent to insiders in the opera world because Serafin was not in favor at La Scala at the time. Lucrative recording contracts for La Scala’s management would seemingly outweigh any objection they had to Serafin. In following sessions Serafin conducted the chorus and orchestra of La Scala with Callas and Rossi Lemeni in leading roles in Norma, La Forza del Destino and Aida. Another conductor, Gianandrea Gavazzeni, led the recording of Il Turco in Italia also made at La Scala with Callas and Rossi Lemeni.
After his debut at La Scala in 1947, Rossi Lemeni appeared with the company until 1971. That theatre witnessed him in a wide variety of operas and also presented him in the Verdi Messa da Requiem conducted by Victor de Sabata to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death, and in a solo recital with Giorgio Favaretto at the piano. Among the operas were Boris Godunov, Lucrezia Borgia, Norma, Mefistofele, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Don Carlo, La Favorita, L’Amore dei tre Re, Faust, Elektra, I Quatro Rusteghi, La Vestale, David, Der Freichütz, Il Turco in Italia, The Fair at Sorcinzy, La Figlia di Jorio, Samson et Dalila, L’Elisir d’Amore, Giulio Cesare, Anna Bolena, Louise, Assassinio nella Cattedrale, El Retablo de Maese Pablo, Ernani, Fedra , Macbeth, Les Contes d’Hoffmann and La Leggenda del Ritorno, among others. La Scala afforded him his largest repertoire in a single theatre.
In South America where he was a frequent guest, he performed most frequently at Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, where he made his debut as Timur in Turandot. The other operas, some of which he sang in more than one season, were Aida, La Forza del Destino, Faust, Boris Godunov, Mefistofele, L’Amore dei tre re, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, L’Assassinio nella Cattedrale and Luisa Miller. All of those performances were broadcast from equipment in the Colón and some were privately recorded by enthusiasts from the radio transmissions.
Rossi Lemeni made his operatic debut in the United States in San Francisco as Boris Godunov on 2 October 1951 in a production sung in Italian. Greatly admired there, he also appeared in L’Amore dei tre re, La Bohème, Don Giovanni, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Mefistofele, La Forza del Destino and Louise. His complete performances with the company were in the years 1951, 1952, 1953, 1967, 1968 and he participated in the company’s Anniversary Gala in 1978. The Standard Oil Company of California, in collaboration with the San Francisco Opera, presented weekly broadcasts during its season from theatres in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The programs highlighted performances given by the company. The broadcasts were known as the Standard Hour and Rossi Lemeni appeared in three of them in separate seasons. During his debut season, he sang Boris’s Monologue in Russian on the Standard Hour at the time the opera was being performed at the Opera in Italian translation. His appearance on the broadcast in 1953 included Wotan’s Farewell from Die Walküre sung in the original German and conducted by Serafin, infrequently performed repertoire for both artists. He also appeared in a concert version of Boris with the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Opera Chorus, sung in Russian and conducted by Leopold Stokowski in 1952. Stokowski used the standard Rimsky-Korsakov orchestration augmented with his own additions. A set of highlights was recorded by RCA Victor. (Rossi Lemeni’s name appeared on the jacket and labels of the first run of the album as “Nicola Rossi-Lemeny”. The spelling of Lemeni was corrected for the re-designed album cover which bore an image of the Imperial Crown of Russia.) It was also in 1952 that Rossi Lemeni, prior to performances in San Francisco, appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in New York City and sang to a television audience from coast-to-coast.
On 16 November 1953 Rossi Lemeni made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Mefistofelès in Faust and his one broadcast with the company occurred on 5 December of that year. He also sang in Don Giovanni and Boris Godunov, which he re-learned in English for the occasion. A sketch of Rossi Lemeni as Mefistofelès adorned the cover of an issue of The Saturday Review and the public seemed to respond favorably to him, but the reaction of the New York critics was less than favorable. It was his only season at the Met.
Carol Fox of the Chicago Lyric Opera found Rossi Lemeni an intriguing personality and singer and he was engaged to open its first season, in 1954, as Don Giovanni with a stellar cast which the forces of the Lyric assembled. This same season Maria Meneghini Callas, as she was then known, made her United States opera debut at Lyric. Rossi Lemeni became an audience favorite and he appeared in Chicago during three seasons in Norma, I Puritani, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, La Bohème, L’Amore dei tre re, L’Elisir d’Amore, Faust and La Forza del Destino. Because Lyric spared no expense at assembling unusually fine casts during its early seasons, it is regrettable that none of its performances was broadcast.
Rossi Lemeni was on the roster of every important theatre in Italy among which he made frequent appearances at La Scala, La Fenice, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma,Teatro San Carlo di Napoli, the Communale di Firenze for the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the Massimo di Palermo. He sang abroad at Covent Garden in London, l’Opéra de Paris, the Gran Liceo of Barcelona, São Carlos of Lisbon, the National Theatre of Croatia at Zagreb, et cetera. Among other operas than those listed above, he sang in Der Rosenkavalier, Der Fliegende Hollander, Tannhäuser, Tristan und Isolde, Eugene Onegin, The Demon, Don Quichotte, Wozzeck, Il Piccolo Marat, The Emperor Jones, Lo Straniero, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Billy Budd, among others. Some of the world premieres in which he participated were Angelo Musco’s Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), Jacapo Napoli’s Dubrowski II, Pizzetti’s Assassinio nella Cattedrale, Zafred’s Wallenstein, Braga Santos’s Tiologia das Bracas, Rota’s La Visita Meravigliosa, and in six operas written by Renzo Rossellini especially for him: Uno Sguardo dal Ponte (A View from the Bridge), L’Avventuriero, Le Campane, La Leggenda del Ritorno, L’Annonce faite à Marie and La Reine Morte.
Among Rossi Lemeni’s favorite roles were Boris Godunov, Filippo II, Don Giovanni, Mefistofele, Mefistofelès, Enrico VIII, Mosè, Bloch’s Macbeth and Thomas Becket. He sang a special performance as Becket in Assassinio nella Cattedrale at the Vatican where it remains the only opera given there. Pope John XXIII knighted him into the order of St. Sylvester after the performance.
Several women were significant influences in the life of Nicola Rossi Lemeni. First, his mother for her love, cultivated approach to life and her skill in training his voice. Callas, for her close friendship with him and her gratitude to him resulting from his recognition of her talent which led to her international career. Tullio Serafin’s daughter, Victoria, had a close relationship with him during the early years of his professional career but they were never married, despite publicity to the contrary. And, finally, and to his lasting delight, Virginia Zeani.
The beautiful, accomplished and effervescent Romanian soprano Zeani had appreciated his art since she first heard him sing in 1946 and it was reinforced each time she heard him in subsequent seasons. She stated, “I was always in awe of him.” Zeani first sang with him in 1952 in a performance of I Puritani in Florence without benefit of rehearsal. Having only seen him with make up on and usually singing older parts, she assumed he was much older than he was. It was in 1956 when they were at La Scala for rehearsals and performances of Giulio Cesare that she discovered he was a man in his thirties. Their association intensified and romance bloomed. They were married in 1957. Their only child, Alessandro, was born in 1958. Zeani and Rossi Lemeni performed together as frequently as their disparate and heavy schedules permitted. Their artistic collaborations in the theatre resulted in brilliant performances but they always prepared their roles with separate repetiteurs. Neither gave vocal advice to the other. Both singers were engaged by the University of Indiana in 1980 to join its voice faculty on which they taught until his death, caused by liver cancer, on 13 March 1991.
The legacy of Nicola Rossi Lemeni lives on in his many commercial and live performance recordings, recorded interviews, and preserved videos including a program of solo scenes staged by RAI from some of the operas he performed, a live performance staged for RAI television of Le Nozze di Figaro in which he sang Figaro, and a performance that NHK televised during a Lyrica Italiana season in Tokyo of Don Carlo in which he portrayed Filippo II. His soulful perceptions of the human condition live on in the five volumes of his published poems. Those persons who benefited from having witnessed him in live performance were especially fortunate. And, those who knew him, performed with him and studied with him carry inimitable treasures in memory.
I wish to thank and offer gratitude to Mme Virginia Zeani Rossi Lemeni and Dr Alessandro Rossi Lemeni for their generosity and invaluable assistance.
George Shelby Weaver