The daughter of an army officer and a Polish gypsy, Vishnevskaya was brought up in poverty by her grandmother after her father, an alcoholic, tried to kill her mother with an axe. When she was ten she was given a record of music from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin which completely captivated her: ‘I was in a fever for days’, she later recalled. As a child she displayed vocal talent, studying at the Rimsky- Korsakov School of Music and then privately with Vera Nikolayevna.
Following the lifting of the siege of Leningrad in 1944 Vishnevskaya auditioned successfully for the Leningrad District Operetta Theatre and was part of a troupe that entertained Russian troops. Around this time she was married briefly to a young alcoholic sailor, Georgi Vishnevsky, whose name she took professionally and by whom she had a child who died shortly after birth; she later married the founder of the Leningrad Operetta Theatre, Mark Rubin. In 1950 she took the part of Polenka in the operetta Kholopka by Strelnikov and after singing with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, decided upon an operatic career.
In 1951 Vishnevskaya began to study opera with the distinguished teacher Vera Garina but her career was endangered when she contracted tuberculosis. She survived this by refusing the traditional treatment of collapsing a lung (with the consequence of being unable to sing) and by securing antibiotics on the black market through mortgaging her future earnings. In 1952 she won a singing competition organised by Moscow’s Bolshoi Opera, which secured for her a place with this company. Her first major role at the Bolshoi was Tatyana / Eugene Onegin in October 1953: her animated interpretation was enormously successful and this remained a signature role throughout her career.
At the Bolshoi Vishnevskaya soon demonstrated her worth: ‘…she could perform any part with top-class professionalism’, recalled the producer Boris Pokrovsky. Her major roles included Leonore / Fidelio, Marguerite / Faust, Lisa / The Queen of Spades, Kupava / The Snow Maiden, Marfa / The Tsar’s Bride (both by Rimsky-Korsakov), the title role in Rachmaninov’s Francesca da Rimini, Lady Macbeth / Macbeth, Violetta / La traviata, Alice Ford / Falstaff, Desdemona / Otello and the title parts in Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (revised as Katarina Izmailova). Among the first performances at the Bolshoi in which she participated were Shebalin’s The Taming of the Shrew (1957), Prokofiev’s War and Peace (Natasha, 1959), Muradeli’s October (Marina, 1964) and Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko (Sofiya, 1970).
Another of Vishnevskaya’s finest roles was the title part in Aida. She first performed this in Sarajevo in 1960, going on to make her debut in the same part at the Metropolitan Opera in 1961 (followed by a single Butterfly) and later at the Royal Opera House, London. The British composer Benjamin Britten wrote the soprano part in his War Requiem for her, possibly after he had heard her sing in 1961. The Soviet authorities prevented her from participating in the first performance at Coventry Cathedral in 1962, but she later recorded the work with Britten conducting in 1963. For her debut at La Scala, Milan, in 1964 she sang Liù / Turandot opposite Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli.
While on tour in Czechoslovakia in 1955 Vishnevskaya had met the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, whom she swiftly married, one reason being to avoid the advances of the Soviet politician Bulganin. Many years later, partly from outrage at the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, she and her husband began to associate with Soviet dissidents, for instance allowing the author Alexander Solzhenitsyn to write in their country house between 1969 and 1973. Although Vishnevskaya was awarded the Order of Lenin in 1971, she and Rostropovich rapidly became ‘non-persons’ in Soviet Russia. Shortly after Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion in 1974 she and her family (she had two daughters by Rostropovich) were allowed to leave the Soviet Union; their citizenships were revoked in 1978. During this period they lived in America and later in France and England. In one of the last acts of the Soviet Union, in 1990 Mikhail Gorbachev restored the couple’s citizenship and they returned to Russia; the survival of Boris Yeltsin during the attempted coup of 1991 was certainly assisted by Rostropovich’s public presence beside him.
Having given her farewell performance in Paris in 1982 as Tatyana, Vishnevskaya spent the latter part of her life in good works, establishing the Vishnevskaya-Rostropovich Foundation to support children, founding an opera school in Moscow, and a charity to assist retired members of the Bolshoi Opera. She played the empress Catherine the Great in the film Behind the Mirror (1994) and a babushka in the film Alexandra (2007).
Unquestionably the finest dramatic soprano to come out of the Soviet Union in the post-war period, Vishnevskaya had a voice that was secure throughout the whole soprano range, with a warm and attractive vocal timbre. She was a forceful presence on stage, where her slim figure and natural good looks commanded all eyes as well as ears. Her wonderful account of Tatyana in the 1956 recording of Eugene Onegin by the Bolshoi Opera remains a benchmark interpretation.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).