By the early 1960s chinks had begun to appear in the Iron Curtain: as on a dark night, cautiously but conspicuously, the stars began to show through. Arkhipova was one of the brightest, and, ultimately, in Russia she was the most loved. News of her debut reached the West in 1956, for it had also been the occasion of a triumph in Moscow for the tenor Mario del Monaco. They sang together in Carmen, a sparky encounter, culminating (as we can hear in the recording) in a blood-curdling death scene. For Arkhipova, who had only recently completed her operatic apprenticeship in Sverdlovsk, it marked the beginning of a long and honoured career at the Bolshoi and the international acclaim that had been denied to singers of an earlier generation.
In this country she leaves a happy memory enriched in later years by unexpected appearances at London’s Wigmore Hall. Now in her 70s, she brought over young singers with her, beneficiaries of her scholarship Foundation, and, while taking a full part in events herself, she put them centre-stage and allowed us to hear what they were made of. She was a generous, maternal Schumann-Heink figure with a smile that warmed everything within sight. She sang solos and duets. In The Times, Hilary Finch reported on the concert of March 1996: “The marble cladding may have worn off Arkhipova’s mezzo, but the resilient granite of training underneath is unscarred”. A firelight glow of frail tone and undaunted spirit illumined the old Countess’s reminiscences in The Queen of Spades and then, most movingly, she joined the young soprano in the Pastoral duet, a risky undertaking surely but one in which the alliance of age and youth touched the heart as it surprised the ears with its well-matched blend and grace.
Only two years earlier she had amazed her hearers with the surviving quality of her voice. The first sound produced an almost audible sigh of pleasure, wonder and (it may well have been) relief. There were times that evening – the unaccompanied start of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Hebrew Song” was one of them, and the high climax of “Summer Night’s Dream” another – when the impossible seemed to have happened and the 69 year-old stood there like a woman in her prime with the voice we had first come to know on records over 30 years earlier.
She had then impressed as an enchantingly fresh-voiced Countess in the original cast’s recording of Prokoviev’s War and Peace. Her full powers were revealed as Marfa in Khovanshchina and Lyubasha in The Tsar’s Bride. Recital discs included Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, less harrowing and specific than her contemporary Vishnevskaya’s but more firm and even in voice-production. In songs such as Tchaikowsky’s “Serenade” she could lilt and charm, and her art was probably at its warmest in the song of the young bride who foresees herself walking among the bodies of the slain after the next day’s battle in the film-score of Alexander Nevsky. Also worth searching out is the recording of a performance at Covent Garden in 1975 when as Azucena in Il trovatore, as The Times put it, “she pierced beneath the context of a star-studded performance to what Verdi and the music really mean”.