Lauded opera legend Viardot honored in tailor-made show

Their combined brilliance is astounding. Two of America’s greatest living mezzos, Frederica von Stade and Marilyn Horne, are about to join forces with superb Verdi baritone Vladimir Chernov, stage director and former San Francisco Opera General Manager Lofti Mansouri, fast-rising gifted soprano Melody Moore and San Francisco Symphony’s own Peter Grunberg to present two evenings of “Pauline Viardot and Friends.” These will be nights to remember.

Mezzo Pauline Viardot (1821-1910), one of the most lauded singers of the 19th century, triumphed in the operas of Rossini, Bellini and Berlioz. So great was her artistry that Chopin, Liszt, Berlioz, Gounod, Meyerbeer, Saint-Saëns, Schumann and Fauré all composed or dedicated works for her.

Viardot was also a gifted composer as well as a highly accomplished pianist. Her colorful life included friendship with writer George Sand and a ménage-a-trois with her husband, theater director Louis Viardot, and Russian author Ivan Turgenev. She was also the older sister of the equally feted mezzo Maria Malibran (1808-1836), and daughter of Manuel Garcia, who created two of Rossini’s most celebrated baritone roles. Her life seems tailor-made for a program that includes two mezzos celebrated for singing the Garcia sisters’ repertoire.

On Thursday and Saturday at the Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances presents Von Stade, Chernov, Moore and accompanist Grunberg performing songs by Viardot, Chopin and Rossini. Viardot’s contributions — some can be previewed on “Pauline Viardot and Friends” (Opera Rara), Cecilia Bartoli’s “Chant d’Amour” (London/Decca), and Isabel Bayrakdarian’s “Pauline Viardot-Garcia (Analekta)” — are infinitely charming.

“Viardot obviously knew how to write for the voice,” von Stade explained by phone from Houston, where she is starring in “Three Decembers,” a new opera by Jake Heggie that she’ll perform here thrice in December. “The music is absolutely beautiful, and she wrote equally well in French, Russian and Spanish.

“The evening is being presented very much as a salon, and includes narration about her fascinating life. She was a great, great voice. I have a special connection to her sister, Maria Malibran, because years ago I did a Malibran version of ‘Sonnambula’ in San Francisco. And Marilyn has an equally special connection to Viardot’s music that’s going to be thrilling to find out more about.”

Horne, whose recently re-released two-CD set, “Souvenir of a Golden Era” (Decca), contains her extraordinary renditions of arias associated with Viardot and Malibran, steps into a new role as narrator. “It’s different, because I don’t have the music to lead me where I’m going,” she explained by phone. “I’ve never listened to the Opera Rara recording from Wigmore Hall, because I like to get my own thing going. I’m too good a mimic. I can take on mimicking without even knowing it.”

Pauline Viardot and Friends has only been presented twice before, in London and Paris. No lover of great singing can afford to miss it.

IF YOU GO

Pauline Viardot andFriends

Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday

Tickets: $60 to $80

Contact: (415) 392-2545 or www.performances.org

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