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Legends Befit Legends

March 25, 2008

Lovefest, joyful reunion, royal tribute — such descriptions merely begin to tell the tale of the U.S. premiere of "Pauline Viardot and Friends." This major fête from San Francisco Performances, which repeats in San Francisco's Herbst Theatre on Saturday night, March 22, not only affords the opportunity to see two of the greatest mezzos of the last 50 years strut their stuff in fine form, but also allows a major reassessment of the prodigious compositional gifts of their legendary mezzo predecessor, Pauline Viardot (1821-1910).
"Imagine that is Pauline Viardot writing that!" exclaimed host and narrator Marilyn Horne after soprano Melody Moore had done a wonderful job in bringing Viardot's dramatic Scéne d'Hermione to life. So powerful was the music that we all nodded our heads in agreement. It was only one of the several Viardot works on the generous program, whose drama and passion Tchaikovsky and Chopin might have recognized as equal to their own.

Thanks to Horne's awe-inspiring gifts as a raconteur — abetted (it seems) by a diminutive prompting screen spied by a balcony attendee — and the equally inspiring gifts of the performing musicians (who included, in a brief quartet, Horne herself), our appreciation of Viardot's gifts grew. We already knew that she had been the vocal toast of Europe, for whose instrument and "unearthly technique" Meyerbeer wrote Le Prophète ("the hardest music I ever sang," said Horne), Brahms wrote the Alto Rhapsody, and Berlioz revived Gluck's Orphée and Alceste.

From Horne we learned that Viardot was also the pianist whom Saint-Saëns proclaimed the equal of Clara Schumann, the salon host who brought together the continent's literary greats, and the uncredited genius who helped Gounod write Sappho and Berlioz write Les Troyens. But as a composer, she was handicapped by the fact that she was a woman composing in the 19th century. Thus her songs and operettas were basically neglected during her lifetime and for at least 60 years after her death.
Remarkable Sisters Rediscovered
Then the tide began to shift. First came Horne's recently remastered Souvenir of a Golden Era. Inspired by London Records' Terry McEwen, this major tribute to the repertoire of Viardot and her younger sister, Maria Malibran (the two were called "the Sisters Garcia"), drew renewed attention to Viardot (listen online). Further attention was drawn to the clan when von Stade revived the mezzo version of La Sonnambula that Bellini arranged for Maria Malibran. (I still recall Flicka sleepwalking on the San Francisco Opera set, singing with rare grace.)

Then came recordings of Viardot's music by Cecilia Bartoli and Isabel Bayrakdarian. Finally, in its third appearance and second incarnation, we have "Pauline Viardot and Friends." The program is also available on CD in an Opera Rara live recording from Wigmore Hall that includes some significant — not for the better — cast changes.

Which takes us to the evening itself. Director Lotfi Mansouri set the stage, approximating with elegant simplicity an intimate salon: lovely chair and flower-set table on the left for Horne, backed by a tastefully patterned screen; Peter Grunberg's polished piano in the middle, with room for cellist Emil Miland's two appearances; and three chairs and table (with flowers and water) on the right for the three vocalists, backed by the obligatory potted palm.

Filling the first chair was a radiant blonde, Horne, who recently survived chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery for pancreatic cancer. (She also credits her recovery to daily sessions of hypnotherapy.) The picture of health (despite a sore throat), she looked resplendent in a bright red dress and sequined cape. Soon she was followed by Vladimir Chernov, handsome with longish gray hair and a modern rendition of black-tie formality; von Stade, glamorous as all get out; and Moore, more simply attired.

The singing was major. Von Stade's vocal production remains admirably steady, her hollow, low sounds heart-touchingly profound, the highs strong and ringing. At her incomparable best in the softer-voiced Die Sterne (The stars), she projected the first line with ravishing, transfixing beauty. Describing a motionless, mystical moment gazing at the stars, her wondrous, show-stopping performance was breathtakingly mesmerizing.

Chernov is another great artist. So masterful that he made Viardot's vocally challenging Russian-language songs sound easy, he sang with elegance and restraint. Turning on his abundant charm, Chernov capped the opening Dve rozy (Two roses) with a gorgeous, sweet high falsetto. Elsewhere, he darkened his tone as required, sweetening at the end of phrases only when appropriate, and hinting at his preeminence as a Verdi baritone by opening up with hall-filling drama at the end of the final song. You could sense snarl and menace in his blood, but mostly he closed his eyes to purr up the paramour and the pussycat.
A Surprising Melody
"I knew that Flicka and Vladimir were great," said Horne, "but Melody is the surprise for me." As she was for many of us. Despite her embrace of heavier rep — Gluck's Divinités du Styx (Gods of the Styx) is, after all, Eileen Farrell and Kirsten Flagstad territory — I hear Moore's voice at this point as basically lyric with spinto pretensions. There is a dramatic darkness to the lower range, and the always secure, easily voiced highs can open with impressive, quasi-spectacular color, but the dramatic weight (let alone the Flagstadian grandeur and Hina Spani-like glamour) are not (yet?) there.

Given some of the hardest, most demanding songs of the evening, Moore sang wonderfully, with a rock-steady, healthy tone throughout the range. Her beautiful final solo Ici-bas tous les Lilas meurent (Down here all the lilacs die) displayed abundant lyric gifts that I hope are not lost in a push toward bigness.

Grunberg was more than the ideally supportive accompanist and music director. His perfectly postured, handsome countenance steadily beamed volumes of appreciation as Horne conquered her newest role with awesome ease. Emil Miland was the droll cellist-trickster, playing wonderfully, the foil of Flicka's gags, the icing on the cake.

What great artists and music. Special thanks to producer Judy Flannery, writer Georgia Smith, music researcher Marta Johansen, and project advisor Clifford Cranna for helping create this extraordinary evening. I'm still vibrating from the experience.

Jason Victor Serinus regularly reviews music and audio for Stereophile, SFCV, Classical Voice North America, AudioStream, American Record Guide, and other publications. The whistling voice of Woodstock in She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, the longtime Oakland resident now resides in Port Townsend, Washington.