February 3, 2008
Having mentioned rôles that the great Pauline Viardot (1821–1910) played in Chopin’s story, it seems worthwhile to notice that Frederica von Stade (and who worthier?) has lately been singing, either with others or alone, compositions by Viardot as she performs around the world. London’s Wigmore Hall and the Théâtre Musical de Paris have already heard such performances, Opera Rara has issued a recording, and on March 20 in San Francisco, Von Stade will be doing a “theatrical concert” (“Pauline Viardot and Friends”) with Vladimir Chernov and Melody Moore, narrated by Marilyn Horne.
Cecilia Bartoli has created something of a sensation recently with her disc of music associated with Viardot’s renowned sister Maria Malibran, but Viardot lived much longer and managed to keep abreast of all the areas of musical life of her long day. The career began with famous family performances. Her father, who became the leading singing teacher of the time, had created the rôle of Almaviva in Rossini’s Barbiere di Siviglia. The family came to New York and presented the first performances of Italian opera ever heard in the city. They managed to put on a Barbiere in which family members took all the parts, and they gave the American premiere of Don Giovanni in the presence of its librettist, Da Ponte.
But when you consider that Pauline, who studied piano with Liszt, went from direct links with Mozart to being the mother of Fauré’s fiancée and knowing Debussy and Boulanger, you get some idea of her range. She maintained an eminent salon in Paris, for which Cavaillé-Col built an organ that was regularly played by Gounod and Saint-Saëns, and she lived to pass the torch to the American Princesse de Polignac, who took over patronage of Fauré and moved on to Stravinsky, Satie, Milhaud, and Poulenc.
After so many years of performing, mentoring, and generally living the vie musciale, Viardot composed her last operetta at the age of 84 (based on a version of the Cinderella tale). Those disposed to undervalue the importance of women in music history would do well to contemplate this brilliant figure who had one of the most fulfilled musical careers of all time.