Viardot: Le dernier sorcier (The Last Sorcerer)
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One hundred fifty years ago, the great mezzo-soprano, composer, and pedagogue Pauline García Viardot created the salon opera Le dernier sorcier (The Last Sorcerer) in collaboration with the acclaimed Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev. The piece centered on themes of power and progress, gender and equality, and the restoration of natural order in an ever-changing world,
Pauline García Viardot is perhaps the most famous Romantic heroine you’ve never heard of. She was born in Paris to Spanish parents, the tenor-cum-impresario Manuel García and the soprano Joaquina Sitchez. Viardot's circle was a who’s who of nineteenth-century European artistic society: she studied piano with Liszt, co-authored mazurkas with Chopin, sang Tristan and Isolde excerpts with Wagner in her living room, had Charles Dickens and Henry James as house guests, and shared insights with her best friend George Sand. At the age of seventeen, Pauline created the role of Desdemona in Rossini’s Otello in London to great acclaim, and went on to create roles for many leading composers of the day, including Meyerbeer, Gounod, Berlioz, and Saint-Saëns, who dedicated his Samson et Dalila to her.
In 1843, Viardot began traveling regularly to perform in Saint Petersburg, where she met the great Russian man of letters Ivan Turgenev. Turgenev fell passionately in love with her mesmerizing voice, quick wit, and depth of spirit, and returned with her to Paris, where they shared their lives and families for the four decades that followed. They collaborated on several works for the stage, including Le dernier sorcier.
A chamber opera in two acts, Le dernier sorcier revolves around Krakamiche, a once-powerful sorcerer whose presence in the great woods has upset the fairies, the forest’s rightful inhabitants, and disturbed the harmony of the land. Through the combined efforts of the fairy folk and their queen, the sorcerer's daughter and her prince, and a hapless valet, Krakamiche ultimately learns key truths about humility, love, and living in harmony with the natural world.
At the work’s premiere in 1867 at Turgenev’s villa in Baden-Baden, Viardot played the piano (the sole instrument in the original score) and the roles were sung by her children and students. The audience consisted of leading figures of the day, including Liszt, Brahms, Clara Schumann, Hermann Levi, and Kaiser Wilhelm I, who hailed the piece as a treasure.
Viardot's original manuscript, scored for solo voices, treble chorus, and piano, was held in a private collection for over a century, and as such, the work essentially vanished. Recently, the original piano-vocal score was acquired by Harvard University’s Houghton Library, which has granted permission to produce this world premiere recording.
Eric Owens, bass-baritone
Jamie Barton, mezzo-soprano
Camille Zamora, soprano
Adriana Zabala, mezzo-soprano
Michael Slattery, tenor
Sarah Brailey, soprano
Manhattan Girls Chorus
Michelle Oesterle, founder and artistic director
Liana Pailodze Harron, piano
Myra Huang, piano
Trudie Styler, narrator