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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Malibran and Viardot

Our story today starts in Seville, both the real one and the theatrical one. It starts with the Spanish tenor Manuel García, who created the role of Almaviva in Rossini's The Barber of Seville in Rome in 1816. García was one of the most famous tenors of his day, commanding huge fees and thrilling audiences. When he sang at the premiere of The Barber of Seville his fee was higher than Rossini's.

Plaza de España, Seville

Theatrical Seville, in Rossini's famous opera, was just part of the equation. The real Seville played its role in García's life in that he was born there and seems to have spent his entire childhood in the city. But Seville didn't keep García for long as his talents as not only a great singer but also as a composer and voice teacher made him famous across Europe.

Manuel Garcia

It was while he was living in Paris that Manuel García and his wife, Joaquina Maria Stiches, had a daughter, Maria-Felicia, who was born on 24 March 1808. Maria-Felicia García is better-known today as Maria Malibran, Malibran being her married surname, and she was - and is - the stuff of Romantic artistic legend.

Maria was only 8 when she appeared onstage with her father in a now-forgotten opera, Agnese, by Ferdinando Paer. García was the girl's vocal teacher and he spared her nothing of his notoriously violent and tyrannical teaching methods. Violence was part of García's pedagogy, something which bred in the girl a toughness, and a lust for freedom, which were characteristics of the rest of her short life.

Initially travelling with her father as he toured, Maria eventually secured work in London, in the chorus of the King's Theatre. When the famous Giuditta Patti was indisposed during a performance of - you guessed it - The Barber of Seville, the 17-year old Maria stood in for her and was an instant sensation. [listen]

Another role Maria performed in this very early part of her career was Felicia in the British premiere of Meyebeer's Il crociato in Egitto (The Crusader in Egypt). Already she was becoming well-known as a high mezzo of outstanding talent. [listen]

Soon after these London triumphs, García took his family to New York, hoping to capitalise on the fact that there was as yet no Italian opera in the city. The family included Maria's brother, Manuel junior, who would later become an internationally famous baritone, and her much younger sister Pauline, then four years old, of whom much more later in this post.

Mayer: Gioachino Rossini (1820)

In New York Maria sang an incredible number of roles, and she was still only a teenager. Their first offering in America was The Barber of Seville, which opened in November 1825. Rossini featured heavily in García's seasons, with the young mezzo taking leading roles in Tancredi, Otello, The Turk in Italy and Cenerentola. In addition she appeared in Mozart's Don Giovanni and two operas composed by her father. Present at the performances of Don Giovanni was the elderly Lorenzo da Ponte, who had written the libretto for Mozart in 1787 and who was by that stage living in New York.

Lorenzo da Ponte

It was while she was in New York that Maria hastily married the banker François-Eugène Malibran, 28 years her senior. Depending on who you read, the marriage was either a means of getting Malibran to substantially underwrite García's opera seasons - to the tune of 100,000 francs - or simply Maria's means of escaping her tyrannical father. After only a few months of marriage, though, Malibran was forced to declare bankruptcy and Maria had to support him through her performances. The marriage was rapidly becoming dysfunctional and Maria eventually returned to Europe in 1827, with public statements made to the effect that her husband would follow her when his finances stabilised.

Back in Paris and performing as Maria Malibran, Maria embarked on a glittering career. Her Paris debut was in Rossini's Semiramide in 1828, and later the same year she created the title role in the opera Clari by the then influential and powerful composer Fromental Halévy. [listen]

Malibran's career was mainly focused on Paris and London after her return from America. She crossed the channel many times in the years 1828 to 1832, but then she decided to go to the home of opera - Italy - and there too she was a sensation. Her Italian debut was in Rome (as Rossini's Desdemona, one of her signature roles), and Rossini operas were her main calling cards in Rome and Naples. She took on the role of Romeo in Bellini's The Capulets and the Montagues in Bologna and scored another triumph.

Maria Malibran (c. 1834)

Bellini operas featured more in her career from this point, with successes in La sonnambula in London (at Covent Garden), and even in Norma in Naples and Milan (at La Scala). By this stage she was still only 26.

In Venice in early 1835 she sang Rossini's Desdemona again, as well as Norma. One of her most famous performances took place in Venice on 8 April, 1835, when she sang a single performance of La sonnambula at the Teatro Emeronitio. The theatre was in dire straits, financially, and Malibran donated her entire fee to the theatre to assist. In gratitude the theatre changed its name to Teatro Malibran, the name it still bears today.

Teatro Malibran, Venice

Back in London the following month she sang not only Sonnambula again but added Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio to her repertoire. She continued to add new roles, perhaps the most famous at this stage being the title role in Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, which was written for her and which she created in Milan in December 1835. She caused a scandal on this occasion by refusing to change the part as directed by the Milanese censors. [listen]

When Malibran created the title role in Maria Stuarda she was 27. She also had less than a year to live. After her return from America she had fallen in love with the violinist Charles de Bériot and they had lived together for some six years until - after tortuous legal machinations - her marriage to François-Eugène Malibran was finally annulled. She married de Bériot in March 1836.

Charles de Bériot, with a bust of Maria Malibran (1838, two years after Maria's death)

Malibran was not only famous for her life on stage, in which she had few rivals. She was stunningly beautiful and lived a larger-than-life existence off the stage as well. Scandal meant little to her and she flouted law and convention as she wished. Her social life was frenetic, her intelligence formidable. She was fluent in French, Italian, Spanish and English and in her performances demanded realism, even danger, at a time when opera was so often thrown on the stage and singers just "stood and delivered".

Many found her too much; others found her thrilling. Rupert Christiansen, in his book Prima Donna, says of her: "Like Judy Garland, she seems to have communicated a sense of danger, a sense of someone pushing her own resources beyond all reasonable limits and who was prepared to risk failure in the attempt".

The circumstances surrounding Malibran's early death exemplify this perfectly. In mid-1836, while pregnant, she accepted an invitation to take part in a hunting party in Surrey. She chose the roughest horse in the stable and was subject to a hideous accident, falling from the horse and being dragged for some distance.

She seemed to recover and, despite headaches and bouts of depression, intensified her social activities and her performing. She never told her husband the true extent of her pain while she continued travelling and performing in Belgium, France and England. Some weeks after the accident she was in Manchester and collapsed at the end of a concert. She died a few days later, on 28 September, 1836, at the age of only 28.

Perhaps Rupert Christiansen best sums up the feelings we have in contemplating Malibran when he says: "...perhaps the lingering emotion on pondering personalities such as Malibran's is a sense of pity for the harsh and inexorable hand that they were dealt, with no choice but to exhaust their lives through their genius, denied the joys of being ordinary".

Bouchot: La Malibran (1834)

When Maria Malibran was 13 her parents had another daughter, Michelle Ferdinande Pauline. Always known as Pauline, she was born in Paris on 18 July 1821. Right from the start her father regarded her as his favourite child and took her musical training in hand as soon as she was old enough. When Manuel García died in 1832, her musical training was taken over by her mother.

As a small girl, Pauline travelled with the family to New York, London and elsewhere, clearly taking in all the sights, sounds and inspirations a theatrical and musical family such as hers had to offer. She was also highly gifted intellectually and in music she had several career options. By the age of six she was fluent in Spanish, French, English and Italian and in her later career her Russian pronunciation, when singing in that language, was regarded by native speakers as flawless. Her mother's musical training focused more on the piano than singing, and her early plan was to become a professional pianist.

Pauline Viardot (c. 1845)

In Paris she had lessons with Franz Liszt and studied counterpoint and harmony with Anton Reicha. Although she chose a singing career over that of a pianist, her piano playing was universally admired and praised throughout her long life. No lesser luminaries than Chopin, Liszt, Moscheles and Saint-Saëns left accounts of her brilliance at the keyboard.

But singing won out and with her enormous range she set out to stun. Like her sister, Maria Malibran, she spanned both soprano and mezzo ranges and today would perhaps be regarded as a high mezzo, judging by the roles she undertook.

Pauline made her operatic debut in London in 1839 at the age of 17. It was three years after her sister's tragically early death so sadly they never performed on stage together. But the role she chose was one Malibran had made her own: Desdemona in Rossini's Otello. [listen]

Soon after this Pauline appeared in Paris in several Rossini roles and she almost immediately attracted admirers from the highest levels of the French artistic world. George Sand even made her the heroine of her 1842 novel Consuelo; Berlioz was another admirer. In 1840 she married Louis Viardot, the manager of the Italian Theatre in Paris and a respected writer, art historian and translator. From that time, she performed, as had her sister Maria, under her married surname. Louis Viardot was 21 years older than his wife and was passionately devoted to her. On their marriage gave up his job in Paris to accompany her on her travels and support her in her career. Over the next few years she appeared in London, Berlin, Dresden, Vienna and St Peterburg.

Lassalle: Louis Viardot (1840)

She was a regular member of the opera company in St Petersburg for three years, from 1843 to 1846, and during this time she met the writer Ivan Turgenev. Turgenev fell passionately in love with her and spent the rest of his life devoted to her. Opinions vary as to the nature of their relationship; it's not certain if it was platonic or sexual, and to what extent Louis Viardot sanctioned any liaison between them. What is certain is that Turgenev contrived to be with the Viardots as much as possible, even to the extent of travelling and living with them until the end of his life in what looks from this distance remarkably like a mutually-consensual ménage a trois. There is even an unproven allegation that Turgenev was the father of one of Pauline's children.

Lami: Ivan Turgenev (1844)

During her seasons in St Petersburg, Viardot added Norma to her repertoire, but in addition to her singing career she also composed, and composed well. Her facility as a composer was widely remarked upon, and her education, linguistic skills and wide experience of travel made it possible for her to compose convincingly in various national styles. This is one of her songs, Absence, published just after her first St Petersburg season. It's in French but has a decidedly Spanish accent to its music. [listen]

In Paris in April 1849, at the age of 27, Viardot had one of the major highlights in her glittering singing career, creating the role of Fidès in Giacomo Meyerbeer's Le prophète. Of her, Meyerbeer said, "I owe a great part of the opera's success to Viardot, who as singer and actress rose to tragic heights such as I have never seen in the theatre before." It was a role Viardot sang more than 200 times all over Europe. [listen]

Giacomo Meyerbeer (1865)

Another composer who not only wrote a role created by Viardot but who was also smitten with her was the young Charles Gounod. It was Viardot who suggested Gounod write an opera, something he'd not at that stage done, and the result was his first opera Sapho. Viardot created the title role at the premiere in 1851. [listen]

Charles Gounod (1860)

As if all her other achievements weren't enough, Pauline Viardot was also partly responsible for the revival of Gluck's operas in mid-19th century Paris. By then nearly a century old and regarded as very old fashioned, Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice (which hadn't been staged in Paris for 30 years) was revised by Berlioz for Viardot to sing the part of Orpheus, a role Gluck had originally conceived in Italian (for Vienna) for an alto castrato. Gluck's later Paris version in French revised the role for a very high tenor, but Berlioz, in 1859, created a hybrid version to enable a female mezzo of Viardot's range to sing one of the most famous roles of 18th century opera. In this recording of the end of act one in the Berlioz version, Jennifer Larmore sings a cadenza which Viardot wrote into her copy of the score. [listen]

Viardot's repertoire continued to expand in the 1860s; she never rested on her laurels. In addition to another Gluck role - Alceste this time - she went on to sing Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio and Verdi's Lady Macbeth. It was an astonishing range of roles that these days would never be regarded as the domain of a single singer, and by all reports her performances were always a special event.

In 1863, at the age of 42, Pauline Viardot retired from the Paris stage but continued for a few years to give concerts and sing in small provincial opera theatres. With her husband, her three youngest children, and the ever-present Turgenev she moved to Baden Baden in south western Germany. There her home became a magnet for singing students from around the world. She continued to compose, occasionally setting to music texts by Turgenev, and in her garden she built an art gallery and a small opera house.

This was the period in which Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms were also spending time in Baden Baden. She performed piano duets with Clara and, in an amazing demonstration of the vocal flexibility she still possessed, sang the solo - a true contralto part - in the first public performance of Brahms's Alto Rhapsody in March 1870. [listen]

1870 was also the year in which Viardot gave her last operatic performance of any kind, singing Gluck's Orpheus one last time in Weimar.

With the defeat of Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War, Viardot returned to live in Paris in 1871, and Paris was to be her home for the rest of her life. In a bizarre twist of fate, both her husband and Turgenev died in 1883, and in widowhood she continued to compose, teach, and preside over one of the most fashionable salons in the city.

Among Viardot's many compositions are a number of "salon operas", light dramatic works with piano accompaniment intended for private performance. In 1904, her salon opera Cendrillon (Cinderella) was performed privately in Paris, although it may have been written somewhat earlier; Viardot was 83 at the time after all. [listen]

Pauline Viardot died in Paris on 18 May 1910 at the age of 88. Her life was 60 years longer than that of her sister Maria Malibran, yet both had amazing careers and had extraordinary gifts. For two sisters whose lives spanned more than a century, it was a remarkable achievement.

Pauline Viardot

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in August, 2014.

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