Sunday, January 30, 2011
Galina Vishnevskaya: The Ultimate Survivor
Galina Pavlovna Vishnevskaya was born in 1926 in Leningrad. This was certainly not an auspicious time to be born in Russia, for a singer or anyone else. The first half of the twentieth century was nothing less than an endless nightmare of revolution, civil war, foreign invasion, poverty and socio-political chaos. Vishnevskay's own biography, Galina, is a primary first-person historical source of information about the siege of Leningrad by the Nazis. What she suffered at that time can scarcely be talked about, much less comprehended by anyone who did not have to go through it.
She began singing in opera reviews, or more nearly operetta reviews, during the last year of the siege. Where she and her fellow musicians found the strength to take their little show around I cannot imagine. They were surviving on 7 ounces of bread a day, if I recall correctly, along with a spoon of lard and a spoon of sugar. One night, one of the performers dropped dead on stage, from malnutrition and exhaustion, and they buried her outside the theater in her costume. Galina (who was a member of the Pioneer Corps) fell in love with a young officer around this time, who was killed in action. When the news got back to where she was stationed, some of the other women laughed at her and made fun of her for her loss, dreadful as that may sound. I mention these heart-breaking details for the same reason I chose the unusual picture that appears above, taken from her recent film. She was young and beautiful once, as you will see in the excerpts, but this photo shows her on the inside more than on the outside, in old age. It helps me keep ever in mind what the reality of her life was. To anyone interested in Russia in the early through mid-20th century, and what it meant to live there at that time, I strongly recommend her biography. Having read it (twice) I determined never to say a harsh word about her, because many of the things she did could be criticized (and have been). She was a hard woman, to be sure, ("hardened" would be a better word) who would do whatever she had to do to survive, and who would do exactly what she wanted to do for reasons of her own. Enough said, on to the artistic facts:
She won a competition in Moscow in 1952, and in 1953 joined the Bolshoi Theater. For the next seven or eight years, she worked her way up, and her voice developed into a powerful instrument that made the bigger roles accessible to her. She had made important contacts in the artistic and government circles (which were tightly interwoven at that time) and she was given permission to sing abroad in 1961, which was the year of her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, in Aida, one of her most popular roles. Covent Garden followed in 1962. The La Scala debut was two years later. She sang many roles from the Russian repertoire (her Tatiana was noteworthy) but she also did Italian operatic roles, both in Russian and Italian. Principle among them were Aida, Violetta, Tosca, and Cio-cio-san. Benjamin Britten wrote his War Requiem with her in mind for the soprano lead. In 1966 she was named People's Artist of the Soviet Union, and her fame and reputation were solidly established. She made many recordings, and was, in general, celebrated as a great artist.
Eventually, difficulties arose. Her friendship with some artists who were critics of the Soviet Union was making her life there increasingly problematical. Realizing that she was in danger, she, along with her recently-acquired husband Mstislav Rostropivich, left the Soviet Union in 1974, purportedly for singing engagements abroad, but with no real intention to return. Clearly in de-facto exile, she was denounced by the Soviet government and all her recordings and videos were destroyed, a terrible artistic loss.
After many years abroad, she finally returned to Moscow in 2002 as an elderly woman, and established the "Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Center." In 2007, she starred in Alexander Sokurov's film Aleksandra, in a straight acting role, and received excellent reviews worldwide. She was 81 at the time.
First, a very rare surviving video-clip of a fragment of "Ritorna Vincitor:" (You will have to click on the link for this one—it cannot be embedded.)
This is Vishnevskaya in her prime. The power of the voice is apparent, and the top—never all that easy in so large and powerful a voice, is nonetheless rock-solid at this period in her life. The finesse is also there, and the firm control of the voice makes possible the crescendos and diminuendos necessary to accommodate the musical and stylistic demands of the piece. This was a signature role for Vishnevskaya, for all these reasons, but—as is characteristic of Russian singers—she sang a wide variety of roles, some much lighter. Here, for example is a lovely rendition of "Un bel di," from Madame Butterfly:
This is very interesting to the degree that it shows how she could lighten the tone of the voice to more nearly approximate the color of a girl's voice, while at the same time relinquishing none of the power-potential or intense edge to the big passages where she must soar because of the dramatic demands of the text at that point. It shows how artistically she could hold her vocal powers in check when required to do so.
Finally, the darker, heavier demands of Tosca:
This is right up there with the interpretations of great Italian singers. It is all there—the power, the dramatic intensity, the color, and always the grand style of Italian opera seria. She was of course a prima donna; the fact that she was able to endure, to work, to ascend to that status, and survive there—for decades—is little short of a miracle.
at 1:24 PM