Opera by Victorian sensation Pauline Viardot a first for Wexford

Famed composer and singer will become the first woman to have an opera presented by Wexford Festival Opera

Portrait of the singer and composer Michelle Pauline Viardot-García, (1821-1910). Found in the collection of the State Central Literary Museum, Moscow. Photograph  Fine Art Images/Getty

Portrait of the singer and composer Michelle Pauline Viardot-García, (1821-1910). Found in the collection of the State Central Literary Museum, Moscow. Photograph Fine Art Images/Getty

 

The theatre was full. The performance of Verdi’s Macbeth had reached the sleep-walking scene. Lady Macbeth’s maid-in-waiting has brought a doctor to hear the incriminating ramblings at first hand. The music spins out slowly in a long build-up to heighten the sense of expectation. But before Lady Macbeth even gets to make her entrance a voice calls out loudly from the gods, “Hello, doctor. Well, is it a boy or a girl?”

The place was Dublin’s Theatre Royal in the spring of 1859. The occasion was what the reference books call the “British Empire premiere” of the opera – the first performance in England would not take place until May 1938. And the unfortunate Lady Macbeth whose entrance was compromised by the predictable roar of laughter was none other than Pauline Viardot, one of the greatest singers of the 19th century. 

She had important creative relationships with Berlioz, Gounod, Massenet and Meyerbeer

Viardot’s daughter, Louise, tells of another unsettling Dublin experience. She writes of the singer’s first entry in another production and says that, “The moment she appeared, the audience began to whistle sharply and shrilly. She hesitated an instant, then she commenced singing. At the close of the act the whistling began again and went on and on”.

Viardot was surprised when the impresario, Thomas Willert Beale, came backstage to congratulate her. She challenged him, “But Mr Beale, you should have warned me that the audience was not friendly to me”. “What?” he replied, “Why, it’s a triumph the like of which was never seen. Didn’t you know that the Irish whistle instead of clapping?”

In his memoirs, Beale, who wrote under the pseudonym Walter Maynard, said that, “The Dublin Theatre Royal can boast of some very remarkable musical associations. Madame Viardot has there performed more roles in her varied repertoire than elsewhere. During one Italian season of a fortnight she played Orfeo, Azucena, Nancy, Orsini, Maddalena, Zerlina, and Lady Macbeth – the last, one of her very finest impersonations, which, for some unaccountable reason, has never been seen in London or Paris”.

The Orfeo he mentions is Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, which Berlioz adapted specifically for Viardot, and which she performed in Dublin in 1860, the year after the Parisian premiere of the new version.

Viardot was born into a Spanish family in Paris in 1821. Her father was the tenor and teacher Manuel García. Her mother, the soprano Joaquina Sitchez, continued her singing lessons after her father’s death in 1832. Her older sister, Maria Malibran, was also a vocal sensation. Malibran’s early death at the age of 28 in 1836 – the year she created the title role specially written for her in Irish composer Michael Balfe’s The Maid of Artois – elevated her to the status of legend. 

Viardot did not begin her performing career, in a concert in Brussels, until after the death of her sister. During her first concert tour, in Germany in 1838, she performed her own songs, and sang them to her own piano accompaniment. She met Robert and Clara Schumann in Leipzig, and Robert dedicated to her his Op. 24 song cycle, setting poems by Heinrich Heine. He also published one of her songs in his magazine, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. 

Creative relationships

She had important creative relationships with Berlioz, Gounod, Massenet and Meyerbeer. Beale tells a wonderful story of asking Meyerbeer who was the most accomplished singer of the day. Meyerbeer told him of a concert he conducted which featured Viardot and Jenny Lind, the “Swedish nightingale”. Out of respect for Meyerbeer the two women chose to sing his duet, La mère grand.

The singers didn’t mention anything about a cadenza at the rehearsal. Meyerbeer knew there would be one in the concert, he just didn’t know exactly what it would be like. When it came, he said, “Viardot led off with a series of the most elaborate runs and fioriture I ever listened to – her cadenza was a composition of itself. I was in some anxiety as to what Lind would follow with, when to my amazement every note that Viardot had sung was repeated, without a fault or the slightest hesitation”. He refused to choose between the two singers.

Viardot was pursued by the writer Ivan Turgenev, and they lived in a ménage à trois with Viardot’s husband, the writer Louis Viardot, who gave up his job as director of the Théâtre Italien after their marriage in 1840. Turgenev would provide the librettos for three of her short salon operas and she provided the other two herself. 

In an article on the Parisian musical season in 1844 Heine left a rich description of her complex art. “One regrets, at the Opera Bouffe, the absence of Pauline Viardot, or, as we like to call her, La Garcia,” he wrote. “There is nobody to replace her, and nobody can replace her. This is no nightingale, who has only the talent of her species and admirably sobs and trills her regular spring routine; nor is she a rose – she is ugly, yet ugly in a way that is noble – beautiful I might almost say”. 

He describes her beauty as “not so much the civilized beauty and the domesticated face of our European homeland as the terrible splendour of an exotic wilderness, and at moments of her impassioned performances, especially when she opens wide her great mouth with its dazzling white teeth, and smiles with such cruel sweetness and such delightful ferocity, you feel as if the monstrous plants and animals of India or Africa were about to appear before your eyes”.

Viardot’s songs have been sung in Dublin by Cecilia Bartoli, Elizabeth Pink and Gemma Ní Bhriain among others. Her salon opera Cendrillon had its Irish premiere as a family show by North Dublin Opera at the dlr Mill Theatre in Dundrum in 2017. 

Viardot is about to hit the big time in Ireland, operatically speaking. On Thursday, October 24th, she will become the first woman to have an opera presented by Wexford Festival Opera. It’s not a main-stage production, but one of the festival’s piano-accompanied ShortWorks presentations. In this case that’s entirely apt. That’s exactly how Viardot wrote it in 1904. 

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