Sadly the superb Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya died today aged 86. She was married to the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.
I was lucky enough to be at the first recital she ever gave in England. It was an afternoon indelibly imprinted on my memory because I and every member of the small audience of about two hundred knew we had witnessed something special
I had met Rostropovitch during the 1958 Aldeburgh Festival when I was playing Mrs Sem
in the first Noyes Fludde
. Now in 1961 he was back with his wife Galina Vishnevskaya and was staying at the Wentworth Hotel.
The Festival programme had announced a mystery concert on a Tuesday afternoon. The tickets were cheap and I bought one. I had no idea of what I was going to see. The morning of the surprise concert one of Pears' and Britten's young men from Harrow, I think it was Roger Duncan, told me that a Russian soprano was the artist. She had an unpronounceable name. Peter Pears was trying with no success to research the lyrics of one of her songs based on The Ugly Duckling.
Eventually he just made it up saying 'No one will know!'
Stephen Reice, the Aldeburgh Festival Manager was there too and I was offered a ticket from Ben. Britten was always giving me tickets for which I shall ever be extremely grateful. Stephen was very surprised that I had for once actually bought one. The three of us decided to sit together.
I don't know what I imagined I was going to see but I had just seen the Bolshoi Ballet at Covent Garden and they were shabby and grey and I expected that being the Soviet Union I was going to see shabby, grey and being opera fat . The three naughty teenagers had the giggles.
To my surprise I suddenly saw Rostropovitch walk onto the stage at the Jubilee Hall and sit down at the piano. I knew he was a cellist but I had no idea that he was a pianist too. I was again filled with foreboding.
The house hushed in anticipation of the unknown Russian soprano. After what seemed an age an arm waving an enormous white lace handkerchief appeared from the wings. What followed a few well timed seconds later was a revelation.
A tall, slim beautiful woman with hair piled up on her head like a Grecian Goddess tripped onto the stage with all the confidence in the world. She was dressed from head to toe in gold lame and the dress clung to her beautiful figure. Her high heeled laced shoes were gold, her long gloves were gold and round her neck hung a huge gold medallion of the Order of Lenin. Galina Vishnevskaya was breath taking. She reeked of class and French couture. I was stunned at her stage presence.
The audience gasped in wonder, then there was a pause and then an ovation. Miss Vishnevskaya stood calmly and accepted the applause as if she deserved it even though she had not sung a note.
She settled down, the audience who were agog and noisy settled down and she started to sing. It was pure magic. Rostropvitch's accompaniment was pure magic too. It was a long concert. Her voice nearly took the roof off the tiny village hall and could have been heard in Lowestoft. She was the star of the Bolshoi which means big
and she sure had a Bolshoi voice to suit.
Years later I read her auto biography where she goes into great detail about this concert for she knew that for her it was important. What she did not know was that Benjamin Britten fell instantly in love with her and wrote her into the War Requiem
that he was writing at that moment. He absolutely adored her and would drive her around Aldeburgh in his left wheel drive Mercedes. (Alvis had been traded in!)
I know that for many the fact the Ben could love a woman may come as a bit of a shock but he did. Colin Graham is on record as saying 'If you ever doubt that Ben did not like women just see how he behaves with Galina Vishnevskaya.' Stephen Riece and Ronald Duncan say the same thing and I know from my own experience that they were right. They knew Ben was bisexual and at that time wanted to be considered norma
l. During his life Ben was extremely touchy if anyone hinted he was not normal
! He never came out
during his life time.
If Galina Vishnevskaya had been free she could easily have ended up as Mrs Britten. Ben even spent his Christmasses in Moscow with her and wrote her a special song cycle.
I did try to speak to her after the concert. She had seen me as Flora
in The Turn of the Screw
but sadly she spoke no English at that time. I was astonished to find that in the War she had dug latrines in Stalingrad and like me had learned stage craft through musicals. We had a lot in common including Benjamin Britten.
Galina Vishnevskaya is a truly great woman, not only as an artist but as a strong political woman. She did what she thought was right and was airbrushed out of Russian history for a bit. She had the last laugh. The world needs women like her.