Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Tribute to Galina Vishnevskaya

Like many classical music and opera lovers I awoke today to the double whammy of sad news of the passing of two legendary singers. I knew Lisa Della Casa only through her recordings and (much later) video performances and. even only through recordings, she always captured my heart with that glorious sound particularly in Mozart and Strauss.

Vishnevskaya was another story for me; she became a very early influence on me for her fearlessness in life and fierce dedication to musicmaking. She and Rostropovich were idols of mine and in the two decades I lived in Washington, D.C. was privileged to hear many performances.

When Galina's autobiography came out, I nabbed it immediately and to this day it remains the most eye-opening memoir by a singer I've ever experienced, and a spot-on documentary of the hardships of being an artist during the Soviet era. Hers is no diva-esque recounting of "and then I sang this, and then that and then I met the queen, and won this or that award." Nothing of the sort; As one critic reviewed, "it's a tale steeped in blood and vodka." Vishnevskaya does not skimp on some less than glorious details and the end of one chapter is forever burned into my mind with the power to chill:

"In this vast, monstrous theater, with our faces twisted by underground jargon, we Soviets wriggle and squirm for one another. We are actors by compulsion,not by calling, in an amateur theater run by no one. And all our lives we perform our endless, pathetic comedy. There are no spectators, only participants. Nor is there a script, only improvisation. And knowing neither plot nor denoument, we act."

Many of her recordings have now become legendary and for good reasons. I'll touch on just a few favorites of mine here.

Her Tosca may not be to all likings, but remains one of my favorite interpretations from any singer. Yes, there are moments when her very Russian accent dominates the sound and emission of her text delivery and yet few sopranos (Italian or otherwise) have ever better put across Tosca's opening music with that necessary combination of studied casualness and juicy sensuality Puccini gives to this fascinating creature. Vishnevskaya's voice in 1976 is oh so fascinating - it's big, it's small, it's refined, it's wild (and wildly unpredictable) - she can scale back the sound, lighten high notes and phrase like an Italian who would've known this music from birth. As an example, just listen to the phrase in Tosca's first aria at

"Al tuo fianco sentire
per le silenziose
stellate ombre, salir
le voci delle cose!... "

and you'll know what I mean. While Slava's tempi and dynamics can be different than what we're used to, it pays off in certain moments, most notably in Scarpia's entrance, the choirboy's shenanigans and ultimately, "Te Deum" that closes the first act.

Her Tatyana's (all of them, pirates or studio) are worthy of study by any soprano wishing to sing the role, and recommended to all who love this opera.

The Britten "War Requiem" has its own now well-known stories behind its creation, premiere and recording, but they ultimately matter not at all once one listens to that original London recording. I was lucky to hear Vishnevskaya sing this again some two decades later under Rostropovich . . . a memory that remains as one of my most vivid, haunting musical experiences (particularly outside of an opera house).

The Verdi "Requiem" under Markevitch is perhaps the most thrilling, over-the-top recording I know of this work. When I first reviewed this recording, I wrote:

"While Vishnevskaya may surprise with her ability to sweeten the sound in the softer moments - at times almost swoon inducing, it is rarely ever just "pretty" singing - it is ever filled with emotion and an unexpected grace. Then there are the dramatic moments where , predictably, she leaves blood all over the place. Her final "libera me Domine de morte . . . " is as though a final gasp from one already dead; hers is the sound of the soul making its final, heart rending supplication for mercy before the final shovel of dirt is thrown onto it. It is chilling."

My opinion has not changed.

Mikhail Shapiro's 1966 film of Shostakovich's "Katerina Ismailova" is one of the most astounding film in all of opera; a gorgeously realized grotesque. combining equal parts Hitchcockian hyper-realism with Wiene's "Dr. Caligari" style silent movie, surrealistic spookiness reaching back to the earliest days of film. Ingeniously, Shapiro layers image over image, for example the first scene as we watch Katerina sitting in a window looking out as the images she sings of are projected like home movies against the exterior white walls of her home. It is a brilliant device that early on pulls us directly into the mind of this difficult creature, and despite her later brutal actions, keeps us on her side. Vocally, in that first scene "the boredom aria") Vishnevskaya is almost unrecognizable reaching back to her nightclub singing roots as if Billy Holiday channeling Rosa Ponselle. Vishnevskaya performs all (save one, nearly impossible one) herself and I can't think of many divas who'd have done that final scene - at least not back in the mid 60's.

As for acting, forget about expressions changing over the course of a film, Vishnevskaya's face is like some great mask which, in the blink of an eye can turn from angelic and saintly to demonic and tortured. Likewise she can look like almost like a teenager and before your eyes become a run down, broken old woman, stunning and beautiful one second, grotesquely haggard the next. To say watching her is fascinating is an understatement.

Three years ago, Galina returned "to the big screen" in Sokurov's "Alexandra." Sokurov stated he had never before written his own screenplay but felt it his duty to write a film "for Vishnevskaya," partly to honor her as a great actress,but also to hopefully expiate his sins as a young man who said nothing, did nothing while people like Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich openly decried the Soviet regime and their belief in democracy and human freedom generally. The result is a remarkably, powerful and richly rewarding film. The 83 year old Vishnevskaya appears not as the glamour-puss we've always known her as, but a tough, ragged little Russian grandmother on one last journey. Sokurov's films are always among the most beautiful of our time and here, even in a war-torn, jagged landscape, he - and Vishnevskaya - find enough beauty to melt the heart.

I spent the day listening to a lot of Vishnevskaya today, but could I only recommend one thing, it would be this legendary recital (with Slava) of the Tchaikovsky Romances, from Moscow 1964. It really doesn't get much better than this.


Thank you Galina.