© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Classical 101

Soprano Galina Vishnevskaya's Turn in Alexandra

ONE AUDIO PIECE - MUSIC. I've just watched a film I liked very much, Alexandra, made in Chechnya in 2006 by Alexandre Sokurov. It's the story of an old woman who leaves her home in St. Petersburg and travels to Chechnya-at war with Russia, invaded by Russia, to visit her grandson who is with the Russian army. I didn't realize the searing political implications of this film until I watched the press conference with the director and leading actress after seeing the movie. Alexandra is much more controversial, indeed politically loaded than I even now realize.  I'm responding to the powerful imagery and the simplicity of the story. The film stars Galina Vishnevskaya. She is the widow of Mstislav Rostropovich. For many years, Vishnevskaya ("Galina Pavlova") was the leading soprano of the Bolshoi Opera - the most celebrated Russian singer. I recall her concerts of Russian music in Boston with Rostropovich at the piano. Above all I cherish the memory of a concert performance of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, with Seiji Ozawa conducting the Boston Symphony back in 1977. Vishnevskaya, who with Rostropovich had just been thrown out of Russia with Rostropovich for shielding Solzhenitsyn, sang her signature role, Tatiana. Here's a bit of that performance, broadcast on WGBH-Boston from Symphony Hall*: [audio:galina.mp3] Back to Alexandra. Fast forward thirty years. When I saw Vishnevskaya she was a tall, slim, raven haired woman. Some pay at being a diva. She WAS one. Not in Alexandra. She's a frumpy, dowdy old lady, moving slowly and achingly through the desert heat, reprimanding her grandson for his dirty uniform but remaining unimpressed by the privations around her and the military hierarchy. At the press conference, Sukorov said, "I warned Galina Pavlova that the conditions of making this film in Chechnya, in the 120 degree heat, would be terrible. She told me that she had survived the blockade of Leningrad in the 1940s. She would survive this!" [youtube 2Xg465lKEHA 490 344] Alexandra is a film of understatement that finds beauty in a desolate setting. The heart of the film is when an old Chechnyan woman in market clucks over Alexandra's exhaustion, takes her home and makes her tea.  It's that simple and moving. I had heard about this film and I had stills seen of the imperious Vishnevskaya playing a lady her own age, but from a very different walk of life. In the distance, once in a great while you hear a woman singing, but it is indistinct. I'm not sure Alexandra herself is the leading character. I'm not sure there's any leading character. You pay attention to the elderly, the kids, the soldiers, the desert, the tanks, the guns and the futility of it all. But when I think of Galina Vishnevskaya as Tosca or Tatiana, I will add the elderly and tough Alexandra to my list of unforgettable portraits, and this one is without music. *I heard this performance from $2 "rush seats" in the back of Symphony Hall with my roommate Rob. I went to hear an idol of mine, the tenor Nicolai Gedda, who sang Lenski. He did not disappoint. Nobody did. It was a great occasion. [caption id="attachment_8891" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Vishnevskaya with OSU's Prof. Margarita Mazo in Moscow"][/caption]  

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.