Pauline Viardot was born in France in 1821 into a Spanish musical family -- her father was a composer and had created the role of Almaviva in The Barber of Seville, and her sister Maria Malibran went on to become one of the most acclaimed divas of the nineteenth century. While she was a child, her family moved to New York, where her father introduced Italian opera to American audiences. Her own accomplishments were staggering. She made her debut at the age of 17 as Desdemona in Rossini's Otello; premiered many important works, such as Brahms' Alto Rhapsody; and had numerous works dedicated to her. She wasn't a beauty, but the force of her personality made her a riveting performer, and she was the subject of extravagant adulation, from both musicians and the public. Although she didn't consider herself a composer, she wrote many songs and operettas, many of them in collaboration with her lover, Ivan Turgenev, who immortalized her in a fictionalized character in his play, A Month in the Country. She provided Berlioz so much assistance with Les Troyens that he referred to it as "our opera," and called her "one of the greatest artists...in the past or present history of music."
Opera Rara has hit on an ingenious way of introducing Viardot's life and work -- as a concert-lecture, with a narrative punctuated by performances of her music and of the repertoire in which she excelled. The producers couldn't have found a more compelling advocate for Viardot than French actress Fanny Ardant, who invites us to fall in love with Viardot and who provides the commentary on Viardot's life with a ravishingly limpid accent. Anyone who doesn't go limp at the sound of Ardant's scrumptious, knowing voice must be made of very stern stuff indeed. Soprano Anna Catarina Antonacci, mezzo Frederica von Stade, and baritone Vladimir Chernov, accompanied by pianist David Harper and cellist David Watkin, perform the songs with passion and conviction, although none of them have the white-hot intensity that was Viardot's trademark. The songs themselves are attractive examples of mid-nineteenth century art songs, strongly melodic, showing influences, as would be expected, of bel canto opera, as well as of Schumann and Brahms. This handsome set succeeds as a highly entertaining introduction to one of the nineteenth century's most remarkable musicians.