Enchantress of Nations, By Michael Steen
The mezzo-soprano who had 19th century society at her feet
Monday 14 January 2008
Hot on the heels of Cecilia Bartoli's celebratory reincarnation of Maria Malibran – the first great Parisian mezzo-soprano – Michael Steen has published this hugely enjoyable book on her younger sister Pauline, whose comparable success as a mezzo was almost the least of her achievements. While Maria died from a fall from her horse aged 28, Pauline filled her 89 years with so much creativity and sociability as to take the breath away.
She was no beauty, had terrible stage nerves, and her powerful voice tended towards harshness, but Rossini was her ardent fan and Saint-Saëns created his Dalila for her. Her charisma knocked Dickens, Alfred de Musset, and Charles Gounod – with whom she had a teasing lifelong dalliance – down like ninepins. But her 40-year relationship with Ivan Turgenev was of an entirely different order. As Steen convincingly argues, without the Russian writer's limpet-like attachment to Pauline his work might have lacked its bitter centre of gravity. Meanwhile, her salons acted as a magnet for everybody who was anybody in the cultural life of Paris in the mid-19th century.
Pauline's amiably conspiratorial friendship with George Sand – who modelled the heroines of two novels on her – took her to the heart of one set: she sang arias from Mozart's Requiem at Chopin's funeral. Family connections had propelled her towards piano lessons with Liszt, who admired her singing in return. By marrying the austere intellectual Louis Viardot, she found herself playing hostess to Flaubert, Maupassant, Henry James and their ilk; she first accepted then rejected Gabriel Fauré as a son-in-law, and helped Berlioz on Les Troyens.
When she and her husband emigrated to Baden-Baden in disgust at the excesses of the Second Empire, she built her own theatre, where she performed in the operettas she compulsively wrote. Brahms was one of her domestic devotees, while with Clara Schumann – who meekly accepted her position on Pauline's B-list for grand events – she maintained a faithful friendship.
Steen's book is more than a biography. It's both a zealously researched portrait of an age, and an intimate portrait of the great figure always close to the action. Did Pauline go to bed with Turgenev? Steen weighs the evidence, and says no. No matter: we see the writer here from fascinating new angles, railing at being "tied to a skirt", and joining in home theatricals like a lugubrious performing bear.
Icon, £20. Order for £18 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897
There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turningTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Rihanna 'nude pictures' claims emerge on 4Chan as hacking scandal continues
- 2 iOS 8 apps and features: eight iPhone settings you need to look at after you install the update
- 3 Kim Kardashian 'nude photos' leaked on 4chan weeks after Jennifer Lawrence scandal
- 4 'F*ck it, I quit': KTVA reporter Charlo Greene quits live on air in spectacular fashion
- 5 Scotland could still declare independence – even without referendum, says Alex Salmond
Cilla, episode 2, ITV, review: Sheridan Smith continues to shine as the young singer
Downton Abbey series 5, episode 1, ITV, review: There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning
Foo Fighters: Live 2015 tour dates announced for Sonic Highways
Free U2 album: How the most generous giveaway in music history turned PR disaster
Top Gear to launch in France after Jeremy Clarkson banned from driving on roads
Scotland could still declare independence – even without referendum, says Alex Salmond
Scottish referendum results: Cross-party consensus collapses amid Tory-Labour spat on the 'English question'
Hilary Mantel 'should be investigated by police' over Margaret Thatcher assassination story, says Lord Bell
Scottish independence: David Cameron is becoming the 'George Bush of Britain'
Plebgate MP Andrew Mitchell called officer a 'little s**t', claim court documents 'exposing ex-Chief Whip's 'record of abusing police'
Archbishop of Canterbury admits doubts about existence of God