French singer Pauline Viardot (1821-1910) was a star of London and Paris opera houses in the midnineteenth century and one of the most acclaimed mezzo-sopranos of her era.
She was a celebrated figure off-stage as well, noted for an intelligent, vivacious personality that bewitched more than one notable literary or musical persona of the era—despite what was often described in the press as Viardot's obvious lack of beauty. Later in this remarkable life, the retired performer devoted herself to teaching, composing her own works, and maintaining a highly regarded Parisian salon. “Her high artistic standards and discreet private life did much to improve the status of singers, particularly in France where, at the beginning of her career, the prejudice against stage people was still deeply entrenched,” declared the International Dictionary of Opera, of Viardot's legacy.
Born Michele Ferdinande Pauline García, the future star came from a well known family of Spanish opera singers who were living in Paris by the time of her birth on July 18, 1821. Her mother was Joaquina Sitches, a soprano, and her father, Manuel del Popolo Vicente García (1775-1832), was a highly regarded tenor. He originated the role of Count Almaviva in Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), the famous 1816 opera from composer Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868), who had written the role especially for Viardot's father. During her childhood years, however, it was Viardot's older sister Maria who was the star of the family. Known by her married name as the La Malibran, Maria was a soprano who was one of the first genuine divas of opera, known as much for her stunning vocal range and commanding stage presence as for her tempestuous personality. When Viardot was just a toddler, Maria and the García family traveled to New York, where they performed some of the first opera works in the Italian language ever heard in the city.
Succeeded Sister on Stage
Manuel García provided the first music lessons for both of his daughters, as well as for his son, also named Manuel (1807-1906), who would achieve fame as a baritone and teacher later in the century. However, he reportedly used physical abuse as a teaching tool. An apocryphal story often repeated about Viardot and her sister concerns two passers-by who heard blows coming from window of the García apartment, with one remarking to the other, “Don't be afraid. It's García beating his daughter in order to teach her to hit the high notes better,” according to an article written for London's Guardian newspaper by Erica Jeal. Manuel senior died in 1832, and Viardot's mother took over her musical education at that point. Another unexpected tragedy propelled Viardot to stardom when she was still in her teens: in 1836 her sister Maria fell from a horse during a hunt in England, and spurned medical attention. For a time, she performed on stage with the help of crutches, but the singer who was called the “Enchantress of Nations” died five months later from her injuries.
Hailed as the next star of the family, Viardot made her concert debut in 1837 at the age of 16 in Brussels. In 1839 she debuted in her first opera, Rossini's Otello, playing Desdemona, the role her sister had made famous. But Viardot did not possess the same classical loveliness as her sister, and over the course of her career would consistently be described as homely, with hooded eyes, a receding chin, and a figure that remained unvoluptuous. Nevertheless, Viardot did possess the ability to captivate, both on stage and off. After attending one of the Otello performances, England's Queen Victoria (1819-1901) wrote that she was “delighted and astonished at García's Desdemona, it went to one's heart, and those low notes would make one cry,” the monarch declared, according to Jamee Ard in an Opera News profile of Viardot. Of the evening's star, the Queen noted that Viardot “is an extraordinary creature, but is, oh, so sadly ugly.”
Despite such judgments, Viardot was a notorious femme fatale. The French poet Alfred de Musset (1810-1857) became the first of many notables to fall under Viardot's spell, which happened when he witnessed one of the 17-year-old's performances. The French feminist and novelist Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin, who wrote under the pen name George Sand (1804-1876) became a mentor to Viardot, reportedly warning her to avoid de Musset and steering her instead to a more stable match in the form of Louis Viardot, a writer. The two were married in 1840, and by most reports had a happy, prosperous marriage that produced four children. Her husband, who for a number of years served as director of the Théatre Italien in Paris, was also devoted to his wife's career, and served as her manager until she retired. Sand, incidentally, based her 1843 novel Consuelo on Viardot, about a Spanish gypsy who becomes one of the opera world's most famous singers. The novel has also been published under the title The Countess von Rudolstadt.
Soon after her official debut, Viardot was hailed as the next new star of the opera stage. In 1843 she accepted an offer from the St. Petersburg Opera to appear in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and “the Russian critics were dumbfounded” by her talents, noted Jeal. “Then she endeared herself to the audience even further by including a Russian song as Rosina's lesson piece, so beginning an association with Russian music that would eventually see her become one of its most effective conduits to the west.”
Viardot continued to appear in St. Petersburg until 1846, but her first season with the house was notable for some off-stage drama. In 1843 the 25-year-old Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883) became enamored of Viardot, and two years later left Russia for good in order to live near—and sometimes with—her and her family. For the next 40 years, Turgenev either kept his own quarters near the Viardot household or lived with them, and became a father figure to the four Viardot children. The actual relationship between Viardot and her well-born Russian admirer remains unclear, but “when Viardot was away on tour, Turgenev threw flowers at her picture at the exact time of her curtain calls onstage,” noted Ard. “Echoes of their life together can be seen in Turgenev's works and Pauline can be found in characters such as Irina (Smoke) and Natalia (A Month in the Country),” Ard asserted.
The latter work cited, A Month in the Country, was a play that is believed to have been inspired by Viardot's brief dalliance with another brilliant luminary of the day, the composer Charles Gounod (1818-1893). Turgenev's drama centers around a young man devastated when Natalia, the married woman he adores, spurns him for a younger admirer. Viardot may have also had a relationship—either platonic or otherwise—with the composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869). Berlioz wrote one of the lead roles in his opera Sapho for her, and the two also collaborated on a new version of the famous opera Orphée from Austrian opera pioneer Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787). Their adaptation, which debuted in Paris in 1859, featured a reworking of the title role from tenor to contralto to suit Viardot's voice, was a sensation in Paris and considered the highlight of her career. She played Orphée for three years in Paris, and one of her 150 appearances was attended by English novelist Charles Dickens (1812-1870), who deemed it “a most extraordinary performance,” according to Ard. Dickens further described it as “pathetic in the highest degree, and full of quite sublime acting.”
Composed Dozens of Songs
Viardot had several other notable achievements during her quarter-century on the stage. Berlioz and others wrote some of the opera world's best-known works with her in mind: the French composer wanted her to premier in two roles in his monumental work Les Troyens, as both Cassandra and Dido, and a later compatriot, Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) dedicated Samson et Dalila to her and once described her voice as “harsh, pungent, like the taste of a bitter orange,” according to Ard. Viardot also premiered Alto Rhapsody from German composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), and originated the roles Fidès in Le prophète from Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) and Marie-Magdeleine from Jules Massenet (1842-1912).
Viardot sang in the range from F3 to C6, and though her voice was not as proficient as her late sister's had been, the younger García “appealed to connoisseurs rather than to the wide public—the thinking person's prima donna,” noted the International Dictionary of Opera. “She was not physically attractive, but she perhaps compensated for this, on and off the stage, by the use of her intelligence and powerful personality. Her voice, too, was not perfect, but she was able to conceal its defects with great skill.”
Viardot retired from the stage in 1863 not long after her Orphée triumph, but remained active as a private teacher and an instructor on the faculty of the Paris Conservatory. Prior to this the family had lived for a few years in Baden-Baden, Germany, after being forced to leave France because of Louis Viardot's criticism of Emperor Napoleon III (1808-1873). Over the years Viardot composed more than a hundred songs, four operettas, and the opera Le dernier sorcier. Her home on the Boulevard Saint-Germain hosted one of the most noteworthy salons in all of Paris during the mid-nineteenth century, attracting gifted artists and writers such as like Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) and Henry James (1843-1916), along with political figures and other luminaries of the day. It was in her home that the first private performance of Act II of Tristan und Isolde, the famed opera by Richard Wagner (1813-1883), was given when the German composer asked Viardot to sight-read the Isolde role with him at one of her salon events in 1860, five years before the opera's premier in Munich.
Viardot also had a home outside Paris in Bougival, which had been given to her by Turgenev in 1874. Their relationship remained a mystery to literary and music scholars more than a century later, but the singer once mused, according to Jessica Duchen in London's Independent, “Oh, how many bad things I should have done but for that willpower—the almost inseparable sister of my conscience.” Both Louis Viardot and Ivan Turgenev died within months of one another in 1883. Reportedly the Russian's final words accompanied a glance at a portrait of Viardot, at which he exclaimed “What marvelous features.” Viardot lived for another 27 years in Paris, dying at her home there on May 18, 1910, at age 88. Reportedly her own last words invoked the title of Norma, the great opera by Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835), considered the most difficult of all soprano roles in opera.
The peak years of Viardot's career came long before phonograph recordings of opera stars became commonplace, and no record of her enigmatic voice survives. Her compositions, however, have been rediscovered and used for recitals, such as one given by Frederica von Stade (born 1945), the American mezzo-soprano, at London's Wigmore Hall in 2006. One of the most important legacies left by Viardot, according to music historians, is her early and ardent support of Russian composers like Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), Alexander Borodin (1833-1887), and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).
International Dictionary of Opera, two volumes, St. James Press, 1993.
Guardian (London, England), February 24, 2006.
Independent (London, England), February 21, 2006.
Opera News, October 2007.
Sunday Times (London, England), February 6, 2005.