By Harvey Steiman
Reprinted with permission from Seen and Heard – Music Web’s Live Opera, Concert and Recital Reviews.
Melody Moore, soprano; Fredericka von Stade, mezzo soprano; Vladimir Chernov, baritone; Peter Grunberg, piano; Marilyn Horne, host and narrator; a salon presented by San Francisco Performances at Herbst Hall, San Francisco, 22.3.2008 (HS)
Though discerning vocal recitalists occasionally slip one or two of her songs into their programs, it’s safe to say that Pauline Viardot and her music were new to most of the audience for “Pauline Viardot and Friends.” After the 2 1/2-hour “salon,” which made as much of the 19th century singer and composer’s relationships with famous figures of her day as it did of her beautifully crafted music, they may well have fallen in love with her.
The Romantic Russian writer Ivan Turgenev certainly tumbled for her, and spent much of his life as the “trois” in a sort of ménage-a-trois that included her much older husband. As described in the script, written by Georgia Smith, this was perfectly understandable. Pauline was quite a gal. She was fluent in four languages by the time she was 4, she dazzled Liszt with her piano virtuosity at 10 (he taught her for a while), became a singer at 16 and the toast of Europe by 22.
And she wrote music, mostly songs and, after her retirement as a singer, operettas. The evening generously presented 16 of hers, including one vocal arrangement of a Chopin mazurka (which, the narration tells us, Chopin performed with her), and two by other composers to provide a glimpse of the music she performed.
As staged by Lotfi Mansouri (once general director of San Francisco Opera), Marilyn Horne settled into an easy chair to act as host and narrator, introducing the music and telling Viardot’s story. And what a story, peopled by one famous name after another. It begins with her father, Manuel Garcia, the most famous tenor of his day, now chiefly remembered for a vocal teaching method still employed by some of the world’s leading singers (including Horne), and her sister, the soprano Maria Malibran. The story then embraces a circle of friends that included Chopin, Liszt, Gounod, Meyerbeer, Saint-Saëns, Schumann, Brahms and Fauré (all of whom dedicated works to her).
Already married, she met Turgenev at 22 while singing in Russia. They got close fast. He taught her Russian. Over the years she wrote a brace of songs in Russian, sung here by the dashing Russian baritone Vladimir Chernov. She wrote mostly in French (she grew up in Paris and made her home there most of her life). Mezzo soprano Fredericka von Stade and soprano Melody Moore sang those.
Strikingly, her music seems to adapt itself to the culture of the language. If you tuned into the radio in the middle, you might think the Russian songs were by Tchaikovsky, the French songs by Fauré or Bizet, others by Schubert, but not exactly. Her music may not equal their best, but we hear plenty of songs by those composers that aren’t nearly as good.
The singers lavished much personality and impressive technique on the proceedings, ably supported by pianist Peter Grunberg, who was an equal partner in the music making. Von Stade took the lighter French fare, creating some gorgeously delicate moments with “l’Absence” and capturing the coquettish humor of “Indécision.” Chernov delivered the Russian songs with plenty of slavic angst and, in songs such as “The titmouse,” appealing delicacy. Moore, most recently an Adler Fellow in the San Francisco Opera’s Merola young artists program, held her own with these long-established singers, taking on the heavy lifting with songs that demanded tremendous coloratura and drama, such as the declamation of “Scène d’Hermione from Andromache,” Gluck’s “Divinités du Styx” and Viardot’s distinctly Schubertian dramatic song, “The Oak and the Reed.”
Horne, resplendent in a voluminous red gown and matching red coat, created a warm bond with the audience and the singers. Her personal contact with the music, having performed and recorded several of the songs, and fascination with the historical figure (she has a collection of Viardot memorabilia) made her the perfect storyteller.
She even sang a few lines, first at the behest of Chernov after he sang one of the songs in Russian that Horne had performed in German, later as part of a quartet arrangement of Viardot’s “Havanaise,” performed as an encore. The voice is still rich, warm and pinpoint accurate, at least for a few happy measures.
In a somewhat shorter version, “Pauline Viardot and Friends” debuted in February 2006 at London’s Wigmore Hall, with a reprise at Paris’ Châtelet. The French actress Fanny Ardant was host then, with von Stade and Chernov singing. Anna Caterina Antonacci was the soprano for that. A recording was released on Opera Rara.
Live on stage, Horne, Moore, von Stade and Chernov exuded personality and rapport, injecting ad libs that made the sometimes clunky script come to life. But in the end, it was the music that won over the audience.