Agence-Presse Paris reported yesterday death of Galina Vishnevskaya. In Russia and Europe in the 1950s and 60s she was known first as the leading soprano of the Bolshoi opera. Her appearances in the West were restricted by Soviet authorities.
Still, she appeared at the Metropolitan (singing Madame Butterfly in Russian) the Royal Opera Covent Garden, the Paris Opera, and La Scala, Milan, where she sang in Turandot with Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli. Her recitals of Russian music stormed the world.
The world also knew her as the wife and later widow of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Their life together and the ups and downs of her career were detailed in her autobiography Galina in 1983. This is an atypical singer memoir. This was life lived as a woman, an artist, a wife and a mother in the Soviet Union. Said life was not for the faint hearted, and nobody would have accused Vishnevskaya of timidity.
In 1975, she and Rostropovich were expelled from the Soviet Union for their support of the dissident author Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The couple had shielded Solzhenitsyn (“Cancer Ward”, “One Dayin the Life of Ivan Denisovich”, “The Gulag Archipelago) in their home until he was allowed to emigrate. Galina and Slava did not have emigration status. They were expelled. Period.
In the states, Vishensvkaya found it difficult to restart her career. This writer recital heard her in a searing recital in Boston’s Symphony Hall in 1976. Rostropovich accompanied on the piano. Later that year, she returned to Boston with her signature opera, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Her singing, along with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the Boston Symphony and tenor Nicolai Gedda are imprinted on my memory to this day.
She starred in Soviet produced opera films, most notably Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. As an old lady she returned to film Aleksandra.What diva would appear as a grandmother in the desert of Chechnya? Vishnevskatya did, looking nothing like the Bolshoi’s glamorous Tosca and Tatiana she had been. Aleksandra may be her best performance.
Benjamin Britten wrote for Vishevskaya, so did Shostakovich. She was befriended by Prokofiev early in her career, and was called The Russian Callas. I heard her in person twice. She was glamorous, exciting and unforgettable.