When Turgenev Did the Cancan

Ivan Turgenev; portrait by Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky
Picture Art Collection/Alamy
Ivan Turgenev; portrait by Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky, 1879

Pauline Viardot (1821–1910) was one of the most extraordinary women of the nineteenth century. She was raised in a family where, as Liszt put it, “genius seemed to be hereditary.” Her father, Manuel Garcia, born in Seville in 1775, was the first Almaviva in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (1816). In 1825, with the backing of Lorenzo da Ponte (the librettist for Mozart’s three great comic operas, then teaching Italian at Columbia), Garcia was the first to bring Italian opera to New York City. Viardot’s brother, Manuel, a reportedly indifferent baritone, eventually settled in London, where he became the most famous voice teacher of the day and invented the laryngoscope, a rather nerve-wracking apparatus (I speak from experience) that uses mirrors to allow the vocal folds to be seen in action. Her sister was the fabled diva Maria Malibran, Donizetti’s first Maria Stuarda and Chopin’s “queen of Europe,” who died after a fall from a horse in 1836.

Viardot herself was perhaps the most fêted opera singer of the 1840s and 1850s. She conquered London, Paris, and St. Petersburg with performances of operas by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti in which she was noted for the naturalness of her acting and the purity of her singing. “No one,” wrote the poet Théophile Gautier of the outset of her career, “could forget her adorable gaucherie and naiveté worthy of the frescoes of Giotto.” George Sand hailed her as a “priestess of the ideal in music” and became her “maternal and dearest friend.” Viardot was immortalized in print as the model for the adventurous heroine of Sand’s novel Consuelo (1842–1843), which celebrated the writer’s ideals of female autonomy and independence.

At the same time, a certain exoticism was always a crucial ingredient of Pauline’s renown. Heinrich Heine tried to explain:

Her ugliness is of a kind that is noble and, if I might almost say beautiful…not so much the civilized beauty and tame grace of our European homeland, as the terrible splendour of an exotic wilderness.

For Alfred de Musset her voice had about it something of the taste of wild fruit. Camille Saint-Saëns spoke of its having the quality of bitter oranges. Spanishness was part of her glamour, part of the Garcia brand, but intense musical training and devout seriousness of purpose were not at odds with this. Pauline originally intended to become a pianist. She took lessons with Liszt and remained an accomplished player for much of her long life. She studied composition with an associate of Beethoven’s, Anton Reicha, who also taught Berlioz and Liszt, and she composed several operas and dozens of songs. Her experience as a singing actress was intense and obsessional: “Even at night in my sleep my private theatre pursues me,” she wrote to her conductor-confidant Julius Rietz,…

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