Chantons Pauline Viardot !

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, Wednesday March 1 2006

Frederica von Stade, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Vladimir Chernov. Fanny Ardant (narrator). David Harper (piano), David Watkin (‘cello). Staging by Lotfi Mansouri and Paul Paradis. "Fanny Ardant is wearing a dress from Christian Dior Haute Couture, designed specially for her by John Galliano."

The evening’s concept was a staged recital of songs by Pauline Viardot, but also by her father and friends: Rossini, Gounod, Meyerbeer, Chopin and Berlioz. On the left, a black Second-Empire throne on a podium; on the right, a black and gold Japanned screen and three matching Second-Empire chairs for the singers; in the middle, a grand piano; at the rear, a dark backdrop with three reddish, arched shapes cast by dramatic spotlights.

Fanny Ardant hosted the evening. Actressy, arch and artificial, over-powdered and over-dressed, she laboured through a biography of Pauline Viardot, clumsily scripted to sound improvised. The audience murmured politely at the hammy jokes. Régine Crespin, originally scheduled to do the job, would have done it better: she’d have been more natural, remembered her lines and sounded as if she knew what she was talking about. She would not have referred to Berlioz as “Louis”. Opera singers aren’t often suppoised to be great actors, but this evening reminded me why I gave up the cinema 30 years ago…

Meanwhile, across the stage, Anna-Caterina Antonacci was a picture of unstudied Italian charisma, swaggering up to her music stand like a born Cassandra or Medea in a simple, soft black satin blouse unbuttoned as far as decency allows, a full black skirt and one string of large pearls, her long black hair swept back casually, occasionally falling forward. Her eyes darted fire as if she bitterly regretted coming, she made her hostess look like a painted maypole, and she sang up a storm, as if releasing torrents of emotion pent up while sitting through Ardant’s prattle.

Frederica Von Stade was the consummate actress, looking alert and actually interested in the tiresome text. She was in far, far better voice than I’m ashamed to admit I expected, and Berlioz’s La Captive was what the French call a morceau d’anthologie – one for the annals. The years of experience showed, in the best possible way.

Vladimir Chernov tried not to looked bored, stifling yawns as he leafed through his scores. He has a somehow precarious voice – you’re often not quite sure of the intonation – but it’s echt Russian and I like it, probably because every time he opens his mouth it you’re reminded of Ya vas lyublu, from Pikovaya Dama, or Onegin.

“As we all know, there has never been a great woman composer,” said the awful text with what was supposed to be heavy irony. Sadly, by mixing her own songs with pieces by Rossini, Gounod and Berlioz, the programme tended to demonstrate that, though competent, Viardot wasn’t often great (Antonacci nevertheless made a dramatic showpiece of a scene from Racine’s Andromaque). Even Meyerbeer came as a relief, and as to that Berlioz piece: sublime!


  1. “As we all know, there has never been a great woman composer,” said the awful text with what was supposed to be heavy irony.

    It's neither awful text nor heavy irony, it's a quote from Franz Liszt. ..


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