Elaine Siversen highlights an exceptional career
Rossini admired the Spanish tenor, Manuel Garcia,
so much that he created the role of Count Almaviva
for him in The barber of Seville which premiered in 1816. Five years later, the Paris premiere of Otello
took place with Garcia as Otello. It was in this same opera that Garcia’s daughter, Pauline, made her
operatic debut as Desdemona in London in 1839.
She had been trained in singing by her father and
was, by this time, an acclaimed mezzo-soprano with
a successful recital career in Paris.
Pauline Viardot was one of the most exceptional
mezzo-sopranos of the early 19th century who
had great charisma on stage and a vocal range that allowed her to sing many operatic soprano roles.
Her opera career was acclaimed and several roles
were created for her, among them that of Fidès in Meyerbeer’s Le prophète (1849) which was a great triumph. After she encouraged Gounod to begin
writing operas, he created the title role for her in his
first opera, Sapho (1851).
As her voice aged, Viardot began to concentrate on
her teaching career, for which she composed around
50 songs (although she had never intended to be
a composer). She continued to give recitals and, in
1870, when she was 49, Brahms persuaded her to
give the first public performance of his Alto rhapsody. Seven years later, when Saint-Saëns wrote Samson
and Delilah, he had Viardot in mind to sing the title
role but she declined because she felt that her voice
had aged too much for opera. Nevertheless,
Saint-Saëns dedicated the opera to her.
Viardot’s other friends included many in the Paris
artistic circle including Liszt and Chopin. She had
studied piano with Liszt, who had a high opinion of
her and considered that she could have made a career as a solo pianist. Instead, Viardot confined herself to playing duets with Chopin and accompanying singers and instrumentalists.
Among the instrumentalists whom she accompanied was the renowned Belgian violinist, Charles de Bériot, also a family member. He became the second husband of Viardot’s sister, Maria Malibran. Maria had been taught singing by their father, Manuel Garcia, and he had ambitions for her to be the world’s greatest soprano. She was well on the way to fulfil his ambition with such a brilliant career that, by the age of 17, she had received acclaim in Paris, London, Europe and New York. However, at the age of 28, she collapsed on stage and died as the result of injuries sustained in an earlier fall from a horse.
Despite this tragedy, Bériot remained close to the family. Early in her career, Pauline had married the writer Louis Viardot, who became her manager. Their son, Paul, a promising violinist, was mentored by Bériot, who was influential in gaining a place for the young man to study at the Brussels Conservatoire with Hubert Léonard, Bériot’s successor as chief violin instructor. The Viardots also had three daughters, one of whom became a pianist and composer and two who became concert singers.
Why do we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Pauline Viardot? To ensure that her name, largely unknown, is remembered. Viardot was one of the most remarkable women of the age and this short article cannot do justice to her accomplishments.