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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.


JD Hobbes said...

How anyone survived that time period is remarkable. It proves, I suppose, that humans have an almost infinite capacity to deal with hardship (and little capacity to deal with prosperity, as one person wrote). She dealt with the hardships, survived, and had a very noteworthy career. Her voice is solid, as you say, and her expression reflects the pains of her life. It is indeed something of a miracle.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Yes, hers is indeed an astonishing story. Even to survive all that, let alone find the strength to thrive afterwards, leaves me numb. Amazing strength. Not exactly an easy colleague, very often, but easy enough, considering. There are some whose difficult and arrogant behavior is without cause, or reson. That is hard to forgive. In her case, however, such matters are rendered inconsecuential by the circustances. Thanks for your comment; always appreciated.

Jing said...

Fascinating story and wonderful vocal examples. Her diminuendo at the close of "Vissi d'arte" stopped me dead in my tracks. What control! I can only imagine her as Tosca. Years ago I saw a production of "The Czar's Bride" which, I think, represented one of her first attempts as a director (perhaps her first with the Washington Opera, I can't recall). In any event it was a solid and classy production. When she was called to the stage at the close of the curtain calls, the applause was thunderous. I feel lucky to have been in her presence (even if it was in the Third Tier!)..Edmund, I am very eager to see what your many Russian friends might have to say about Vishnevskaya. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article. You are absolutely right both about her voice and her personal qualities. She could be very tough, but at the same time she always was true to her friends and could be very generous.
The timbre of the voice is beautiful, and expressiveness of her singing is extraordinary. She was especially good in tragic or dramatic roles . Lemeshev praised her in his memoirs and wrote that her work on her voice was very ‘intelligent’. After she had left the USSR Lemeshev’s memoirs were published for the second time and his praise for Vishnevskaya was censored – Soviet authorities were very attentive even to the smallest details:).
She is fantastic film actress – there is an excellent film version of “Katerina Izmailova” (“Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” ) by Shostakovich.

There is an article and a synopsis of the opera at wikipedia:
The ending:
She described this scene in her book – they had to swim in very cold water. Vishnevskaya could have been a star of Italian neo-realistic films, she acted almost like Anna Magnani.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your comment. I envy you having seen that Czar's Bride. Yes, she was quite a woman. Great energy, unbelievable endurance and strength, and a talent that is very broad. Quite amazing, really. Thanks again.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, n.a., for your very informed comment. As so often happens, I have my responses out of order, so the comment above is to Jing, this to n.a. Thank you for the Lady MacBeth film link. I have not seen that, but I would certainly like to. Yes, I never cease to be fascinated by her great range of talent. I did manage to see the Aleksandra, and she was superb. The role was huge--virtually the entire movie, and she never ceases to fascinate. Your observation about Magnani is interesting. I think I know what you mean. She does, as least in early middle age, resemble her, and that same brooding intensity is apparent. Quite a lady! Thanks for a great comment.

John said...

great story, she is an amazing woman, the videos are quite cool as well

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your comment; always appreciated. Yes, she is something all right:-)

The Wound Dresser said...

What a remarkable woman, an extraordinary life[in well,a country that was virtually a insane asylum]Her marriage, and that coda , a remarkable performance in the Sokurov film.Thank you for this gift of an article

Anonymous said...

Thank You very much for such article!
But,excuse me, You don't right whith a name The Ultimate Survivor.
In Russia now is a really great singer! He still is on stage in 82.
This is Alexander Vedernikov.

Edmund StAustell said...

Большое спасибо. Я высоко ценю ваш комментарий. Это новая информация для меня, и я буду изучать его внимательно! Опять же, огромное спасибо!

jim said... | | | | | | | | | |

Louis said...

I couldn't believe what I was hearing when I first looked Vishnevskaya up. She was on the top of a list of greatest recorded Russian sopranos in history. I had to know why, so I jetted over to YouTube and sampled some of her work... wowowowowowowowowowow... WOW! I typed her name into your site's search bar right after, and I decided to start a collection. The first recording I grabbed was her legendary recording of "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk," which sold me on Shostakovich. I couldn't believe that a soprano in the shadow of her prime could sound SO amazing! Her voice was as sharp as her instinct in that one. She sang everything human. She sang the whole darn world! Then I had to pick up her "Songs and Opera Arias" album. It's become one of the most treasured among my over one hundred fifty discs of classical vocal music. Next is "Eugene Onegin," and at some point I WILL have her "Tosca" and "Pique Dame!"