Obituary: Galina Vishnevskaya, soprano

Charlotte Smith13th Dec 2012
Obituary: Galina Vishnevskaya, sopranoGalina Vishnevskaya performing with Mstislav Rostropovich in Prague (photo: CTK / Alamy)

No Tosca ever sang 'Vissi d'arte' with more blazing intensity than Galina Vishnevskaya, but then there can have been few prima donnas for whom the words 'I lived for art' seemed so true. Her autobiography, Galina: a Russian Story, tells a blistering tale of early poverty, life-threatening illnesses, against-the-odds survival through the siege of Leningrad and a glittering parade of artistic successes – enough triumphs and disasters for two or three lifetimes, not just one.

Formidable and tempestuous, Vishnevskaya was a soprano unlike any other. A God-given voice and the determination to throw herself heart and soul into every role – try her earlier recording as Tatyana in Eugene Onegin – saw her rise quickly to become first the Bolshoi Opera's leading soprano and then a national treasure. In the 1950s and '60s, when her star was at its height, Vishnevskaya was the reigning soprano in the Soviet Union for Fidelio, Aida, Madam Butterfly and any number of Russian operas, from Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev to Shebalin and Dzerzhinsky.

It is hard for those of us in the West to credit her celebrity in this period. Restrictions on travel meant that Vishnevskaya was able to fulfil relatively few engagements abroad - a notable exception was Turandot at La Scala, Milan, with Nilsson and Corelli (often found on bootleg recordings) in 1964 - but famous she was and, following her marriage to cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, the couple's joint celebrity made them the Soviet Union's golden couple.

Together, they rubbed shoulders with the country's leading politicians and cultural figures. Shostakovich composed major new works for both of them, Vishnevskaya receiving among others the Seven Romances on verses by Alexander Blok and the Symphony No 14, both memorably recorded. Hardly less important was the relationship the pair enjoyed with Britten. Vishnevskaya was cast as the soprano soloist in the War Requiem, a part she was famously unable to take at the premiere after the Soviet authorities' last-minute refusal of a visa, but she did take part in the composer's authoritative (never-to-be-surpassed?) recording. Britten also wrote The Poet's Echo for her, his marvellously evocative song cycle to texts by Pushkin.

Another of their close friendships was to prove less happy. When the political climate turned against the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich found themselves at first hounded for trying to protect him, then ostracised, and in 1974 were forced out of the Soviet Union. Torn from everything they had, they sought a new life in the West. One of their first events in exile was a joint matinee recital at the Royal Festival Hall and I still remember the electrifying atmosphere as the world looked on.

For Vishnevskaya, this unexpected opening to a fully international career came rather late in the day. Her magisterial voice was becoming unruly and often out of tune, but no performance she gave – her Lady Macbeth for Scottish Opera, the Verdi Requiem recorded by EMI, and many recitals with Rostropovich as accompanist, including an entire Edinburgh Festival built around them – was ever less than thrilling in its intensity.

Her last stage performance was in a final Eugene Onegin in Paris in 1982. Some years later I was lucky enough to serve on the jury of a singing competition with Vishnevskaya, when she seemed to be looking forward to a quiet life. The fall of the Berlin wall changed all that: she returned to Russia and, once over the shock of discovering that everything about her Bolshoi career had been erased by the Soviet authorities, started to play an active role again, founding the Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Centre for young singers and proving a energetic critic of the Bolshoi's artistic policy in the 21st century.

Nothing can quite capture the emotional onslaught of a live Vishnevskaya performance. But there are some splendid recordings – all of those mentioned above, plus the Bolshoi War and Peace and the premiere recording of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk on EMI – and the autobiography is a must read.

One last memory: as a student, I had the chance to sit in on Royal Opera rehearsals and will never forget the two days in a disused cinema watching Vishnevskaya, Carlo Bergonzi, a staff director and pianist rehearsing for a Covent Garden Tosca, as she authoritatively took control of proceedings, virtually directing the production herself. Nobody argued with her. Nobody dared. It is said so often, but this time it is true: they really do not make sopranos like Galina Vishnevskaya any more.

Richard Fairman

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