24th September 2021

Book in Focus

The Life and Work of Pauline Viardot Garcia

Volume 1: The Years of Fame, 1836-1863

Volume 2: The Years of Grace, 1863-1910

By Barbara Kendall-Davies

Pauline Viardot Garcia as Lady Macbeth

On 18th July, 1821, Pauline was born to the tenor Manuel Garcia and his wife, Joaquina, a soprano. They already had two children, Manuel, a promising baritone, born in 1805, and Maria, born in 1808. Both children were musically talented and made fine careers. Pauline was surrounded by professional singers and musicians, and spent many hours in the theatre watching rehearsals and performances. She later said that she could not remember a time when she did not read music.

She studied the piano and planned to become a concert pianist like her youthful idol, Franz Liszt. However, tragically, the charismatic Maria, who used her married name of Malibran, fell from her horse while in England and died from internal injuries. She was only 28 years old.

At the age of eleven, Pauline had lost her father, but her mother, Joaquina, and her second husband, the violinist, Charles de Beriot, took her under their wing, and she performed with them as a pianist at the age of 14. Now with Maria gone, her mother and de Beriot decided to train her as a singer. The two sisters were very different in looks and personality, though the timbre of their voices was very similar.

After eighteen months of training, she was ready to be launched as a professional singer, so a tour of Germany was planned. Although Pauline was only 16, she showed great talent and the poet Alfred de Musset said that she had the air of a princess. She attracted an enthusiastic following, and while in Leipzig she met Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann and the pianist Clara Wieck, who later married Schumann. Clara was eighteen and the two girls became friends for life. In Wiesbaden, Pauline impressed Meyerbeer and he told her that he would write a part for her in one of his operas. At that time, she had never performed in an opera, but, by 1849, she had become a compelling actress and scored a triumphant success as Fides in his “Le Prophet”.

In Russia, she became an overnight success, which led to her international career, and the Russian writer Ivan Tourgueniev, fell in love with her, though she was happily married to Louis Viardot.

At the beginning of 1859, she was preparing to sing the role of Lady Macbeth in the British premiere of Verdi’s opera, and she wrote to her friend, the German conductor, Julius Rietz: “I place great dependence on ‘Macbeth’ for obtaining a good measure of success for me in London—in any event, the creation of the role of Lady Macbeth interests me extremely—it will be all the more a creation because, although I know Shakespeare’s drama by heart, I have never seen it on the stage”.

In another letter to Rietz, Pauline described her rather unique manner of preparing a role: “Lady Macbeth is continually distracting my thoughts. Every time I have to learn an entirely new part, I lapse into a half dreamy condition. I feel as if there were a little theatrical stage in my forehead, on which my small actors move about. Even at night, whilst asleep, my private theatre haunts me, and sometimes it grows unbearable. There is no remedy for it and so my roles learn themselves without my needing to sing aloud or to study before a mirror. Once in a while, though, when it strikes me that my Lilliputian songstress is behaving too boldly, I try to imitate her. This kind of work in which I participate almost unconsciously is strange. It costs me no exertion whatever, but continually demands my attention”.

Despite this rather ‘psychic’ way of learning a role, she was one of the most accomplished musicians of her day. By the time she sang Lady Macbeth (in Verdi’s original version), she needed to transpose some passages in the opera where the tessitura lay too high for her. Luigi Arditi was to conduct the premiere in Dublin and she won his admiration for her fine grasp of harmony, despite the fact that the necessary changes would cost time and money due to the re-writing of band parts: “Caro maestro, Here are the transpositions which I am making in the part of Lady Macbeth. The most difficult of all, which will necessitate certain changes in the instrumentation, will be that of the cavatina. The recitative in D flat, the andante, ‘Vieni, t’affretta’ in B flat and the allegro in ‘Or tutti sorgete’ in D flat, consequently the whole scene must be a minor third lower. Not bad! All the rest of the act may be given as written. The sleep-walking scene must be a tone lower; that is, the melody and recitative in E flat minor, and the andante in B major. I fancy I see your orchestra making faces at the horrible aspect of the six double flats and five double sharps! Dear maestro, you must have these parts copied because the orchestra we shall have only likes to transpose (transport) the public.”

In his memoirs, Arditi said that the final rehearsal of ‘Macbeth’ was so chaotic that everybody thought the performance would be a disaster, but great effort was made by all concerned and “at seven o’clock—when we all parted to rush in search of sandwiches and of liquids wherewith to moisten our parched throats—that we stood a good chance, after all, of pulling the opera through safely, and we did”.

Dublin audiences were highly enthusiastic, but sometimes matters got out of hand in the gallery of the Theatre Royal. John Harris was the manager at this time, and, when the galleryites became too unruly, he would go in front of the curtain during the interval and berate them. They loved this and harangued him in a good humoured way—to them, it was all part of the entertainment and a great pastime between the acts. They often brought sticks with them to the theatre and made a din banging them together. The management sought to stop them by confiscating the sticks at the door, but, in revenge, they brought bags of flour and sprinkled the contents over the unsuspecting heads of those in the pit below. When they weren’t banging or sprinkling, they would sing lustily and some brave soul might launch into a solo which would be followed by cheers, catcalls, hooting and cries of ‘sing up—Mario’s listening!’

During the premiere, there was a slight hiatus towards the end of the opera, when Pauline was about to enter for the sleep-walking scene. The waiting woman and the doctor were seated at the door of her ladyship’s room, with a small table between them, on which stood a bottle of physic with a long, old-fashioned label attached to it. The capacity audience had already sat through three hours of unfamiliar music, and were tiring: the cellos and double basses groaned on and the spectators awaited Lady Macbeth. Suddenly, a voice from the gallery rang out, calling to the well-known leader of the band: “Ah, hurry now, Mr. Levey! Tell us, is it a boy or a girl!” The raucous laughter which greeted this quip could have ruined the scene that was to follow, but Pauline was nothing if not experienced: she paused in the wings, giving time for the laughter to die down; her entrance music was repeated, and she appeared in her sleep-walking trance, fixing the audience with a powerful stare, holding them in rapt attention, creating a chillingly haunting atmosphere.

Afterwards she told Rietz: “I have just achieved one of the most superb successes of my theatrical career through my creation of Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s opera—I had rehearsed it tremendously in my head and it appears that the result is very good—the entire evening has been one long cry of enthusiasm—they tell me that it much resembles a triumph”.

The following autumn, Willert Beale took ‘Macbeth’ on a tour of the English provinces, travelling with his principal singers and orchestra, but picking up choristers and supernumeraries at each town. Vianesi had taken over as conductor from Arditi. He was only twenty-two, but he was a perfectionist who demanded the highest standards. At Manchester during a rehearsal, he was furious when the choristers who were playing the witches sang completely out of time and tune with the orchestra. The section was repeated but the result was the same. Beside himself with fury, Vianesi demanded what they thought they were doing. The singers looked at him in surprise and said, “we are singing the witches in ‘Macbeth’”. “But”, cried the angry conductor, “you are singing in English”. “Yes”, they answered, “it’s the music we always sing in ‘Macbeth’”. When they were engaged, they had not grasped that they were to take part in a contemporary opera, and simply assumed that they were to sing in the play as they had always done. As the poor things knew not a note of Verdi’s music, they were replaced by the prompter and two Italians from the orchestra who sang the trio as Verdi had written it, their heavy beards disguised by drapery.

That was not the end of the problems, however, because no one had thought to engage extras to play the soldiers of King Duncan’s army. Again, the prompter and his two doughty helpers were called upon to don costumes and come to the rescue. The music for the King’s procession is very long, and usually there are at least two dozen soldiers, who exit from one side of the stage, rush round the back and enter from the opposite side to keep the procession moving. The three ‘helpers’ did their best, but by no stretch of the imagination could the audience believe in the reality of King Duncan’s mighty army. These inefficiencies must have made a great artist like Pauline weep.

In his memoirs, ‘The Light of Other Days’, Willert Beale paid tribute to Pauline and said how fortunate he had been to secure her services for Lady Macbeth: “It was indeed a grand impersonation—grander if possible than her ‘Orfeo’. The outlines of the tragedy being very closely followed by Verdi, many of the ‘points’ made by Mme Viardot readily suggest themselves; but it is impossible to imagine or to describe the intensity and power of her Lady Macbeth as a whole. The impression it left upon the mind was that of a weird, imposing picture, the accessories of which were all in harmony with a highly dramatic and original conception carried out by the intuitive force of genius”. He added: “Graziani’s Macbeth was excellent – his splendid voice making great effect. He showed discretion in not overacting the part and in listening to Mme Viardot’s advice at rehearsal, which contributed much to the success he won”.

Copyright: Barbara Kendall-Davies, Jersey 2021

Barbara Kendall-Davies’s operatic career lasted from 1965–1995 and included the first Glyndebourne tour and a season at Glyndebourne Festival Opera in Sussex, as well as seasons at Covent Garden in Moses and Aaron, Boris Godonove and Carmen. She also sang at Lille and Marseilles Opera and toured Germany, Switzerland and Japan. She performed principal roles with numerous smaller opera companies and toured throughout the British Isles with Opera for All. She was a founder member and Artistic Director of the Apollo Group of London, singing principal roles with them and touring the British Isles from 1965 until 1990.

Volume 1: The Years of Fame 1836-1863 (second ed.)

Volume 2: The Years of Grace, 1863-1910

The Life and Work of Pauline Viardot Garcia, Volumes 1 & 2 are available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter the code PROMO25 at the checkout to redeem.