Nicola Rossi-Lemeni


Born: November 6, 1920 Died: March 12, 1991
Tall, well-built, handsome, with a dramatic presence, bass Nicola Rossi-Lemeni made a powerful impression in the decade following the end of WWII. He was particularly popular in Italy where audiences admired his immense, forceful voice. In America, he was celebrated in San Francisco and Chicago, but less well-liked in New York. His voice went into decline early, eroding at both ends of its compass and becoming perceptibly less voluminous. Rossi-Lemeni continued performing, however, making an estimable impression with his acting and effective declamation.

Rossi-Lemeni's father, a colonel in the Italian military, and his Russian mother both knew the children of the great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin, and Nicola found himself absorbed with that artist's legacy from an early age; he collected every Chaliapin recording he could find. After initial training with his mother, he studied repertory with Gigli's accompanist, Vito Carnevale and, at 18, began coaching with Ferruccio Cusinati, an assistant to conductors Serafin and Guarneri. With Italy's entry into WWII, Rossi-Lemeni was conscripted and sent to the Russian front in his father's division. Soon after the war's end, Rossi-Lemeni made his concert debut in Verona, singing for Allied personnel. His first stage appearance followed in 1946 as Varlaam in a Venice production of Boris Godunov. Engagements in other Italian theaters ensued and he sang at La Scala in 1947, remaining there until 1961. His first performance in Milan was as Varlaam, with Tancredi Pasero as Boris and Boris Christoff as Pimen.

In Buenos Aires, Rossi-Lemeni made his debut in the title role of Boris Godunov in 1949. His first North American appearance took place in San Francisco on October 2, 1951, once again as the tortured Tsar. Critic Alfred Frankenstein hailed the bass as "a new star" and described his talents as "immense." He observed: "The adjective 'king-sized' has been done to death in contemporary journalism, but you don't know what it really means until you have seen this man, his overwhelming physique and his imperial bearing."

During the 1952 - 1953 London season, Rossi-Lemeni made his Covent Garden debut, also as Boris. His December 30 performance was found more realistic and restrained than that of Boris Christoff, heard in two earlier seasons. Rossi-Lemeni's Metropolitan Opera debut took place on November 16, 1953, as Méphistophélès in Faust. While critics were impressed with his stage persona and acting, reservations were expressed about what many considered rough singing.

When Carol Fox, Lawrence Kelly, and Nicola Rescigno sought to bring large-scale opera back to Chicago, they mounted two performances of a "calling card" Don Giovanni with Rossi-Lemeni in the lead. Cheered by critic Claudia Cassidy, the production opened the door to a successful fall season for the Chicago Lyric Opera and, soon, a permanent place among the world's major companies. Rossi-Lemeni returned in the fall for Norma with Maria Callas, when Cassidy described his Oroveso as having "the magnificence of Michelangelo's Moses." He also sang Rossini's Basilio, showing a rare gift for comedy. In two subsequent Chicago seasons, Rossi-Lemeni sang in I puritani, La bohème, Faust, L'Elisir d'Amore, and L'Amore dei tre Re.

During the 1950s, Rossi-Lemeni made a number of recordings for EMI, several with Maria Callas. Ildebrando Pizzetti wrote his Assassinio nella Cattedrale (one of five operas dedicated to the singer) for Rossi-Lemeni in 1958. Rossi-Lemeni and his wife, soprano Virginia Zeani, taught at Indiana University beginning in the early 1980s.