May 15, 2016

Madam Pauline Viardot

It was in London, at (the late) Her Majesty's Theatre, that in the summer of 1839, and at the age of eighteen, she made her début on the lyric stage, in the character of Desdemona in Rossini's Otello. The timid, shrinking novice was literally pushed on to the stage by the Otello of the evening, the warm-hearted, fatherly Lablache, always as good as he was great, who accompanied the act by another, that or making the sign of the cross on her forehead. 

"Il m'a porté bonheur" (It brought me luck), says our heroine, of whom Chorley graphically relates the complete success of her arduous undertaking. "This new García," records this experienced connoisseur and critic, "with a figure hardly formed—with a voice in no respect excellent or equal, though of extensive compass—with an amount of sensitiveness which robbed her of half her power, came out in the grand singers' days of Italian opera on London, and in a part most arduous on every ground of memory, comparison, and intrinsic difficulty—Desdemona, in Otello.  She looked older than her years; her frame (then a mere reed) quivered this way and that; her character-dress seems to puzzle her, and the motion of her hands as much. Her voice was hardly settled, and yet—paradoxically as it may seem—she was at ease on the stage, because she brought thither instinct for acting, experience of music, knowledge how to sing, and—consulate intelligence. There could be no doubt what any one who say that Desdemona on that night, that another great career was begun."

Her opening scene was one introduced and written for her in lieu of the original, by Signor, now Sir Michael, Costa, and at once placed her extraordinary musical skill and powers of execution beyond dispute. The reputation won in Desdemona she sustained in her second rôle La Cenerentola of Rossini. The impression she produced was even greater in the concert-room, though here she had to contend with the great popularity of Madama Persiani, then at her height. They sang duets together from Tancredo and Semiramide, the introduced cadences to which were marvels of art and execution, and which would have excited still greater surprise had it been generally known the they were composed and combined by the younger singer, a mere girl in years.

In the winter seasons of the same year Madlle. Pauline García performed at the Théatre aux Italians, Paris, with equal success, the parts of Desdemona and Cenerentola, in which she had been so favorably received in London, appearing also as Rosina in Il Barber  and Tancredo,  a part in which her late sister, the gifted Malibran, had won such renown.

The applause and favour that welcomed her efforts was more remarkable and gratifying from the circumstance that the Grand Opéra of Paris possessed at that particular period a galaxy of talent such as it would be difficult to collect throughout the world at the present day, numbering among its members Mario, who had just made his début, Grisi, Persiani, Lablache, and Tamburini, and also because of the memory of Malibran was so fresh in the memory of the Parisians as well as the London public.


"Madame Pauline Viardot," writes Chorley, "is one of the greatest first-class singers of any time—a woman of genius particular, inasmuch as it is universal." And it is in this respect that she deserves to be cited as a unique example in the history of singers—namely, her capacity of adapting herself to all styles, the result partly of natural gifts, and partly of incessant labour and study.

Of Italian and Spanish parentage, and born in Paris, she yet spoke and sang, when in Germany the language of Schiller and Goethe with a purity of accent which astonished the Berlinese themselves, and this universality of genius it was that enabled her to interpret with equal force and expression the compositions of Palestrina, Mozart, Gluck, or Rossini; to breath the tender melancholy strains of Desdemona, or the bible and pathetic accents of Orpheus; to impart equal effect to a cavatina of the Barbiere or Tancredi, or to those Russian or Spanish airs which she sings with such characteristic vivacity and expression.

Madame Viardot reappeared in the February of this year at St. James Hall, at the second of Mr, Henry Leslie's concerts, on which occasion she sang selections from the historical and classic compositions of Carissimi, Scarlatti, and Gluck in her own chaste and incomparable style, causing a deep feeling of regret that so perfect and skilled a musician and singer should now so seldom be heard. Great in all she undertakes, it is in interpreting the works of the classicists that Madame Viardot specially excels. 

In private life she affords a striking illustration of the fact that, in spite of all that cynics say, a woman may be at one at the same time the greatest of artistes and the most exemplary of wives and mothers—that she may, in fact, unite all the graces and amiable qualities of her own sex with the high aspirations and independence of character possessed by the other. 

From "Madame Pauline Viardot," The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, London, Sunday, October 1, 1871: 208.


Note: VoiceTalks' patron saint and muse was of Spanish parentage and died in Paris in 1910. See here for my visit to her resting place. 

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