Pauline Viardot was the French mezzo-soprano who brought Italian opera to 19 th-century Russia. Novelist Ivan Turgenev, best remembered for “Fathers and Sons ,” admired her for more than 40 years. In “Pauline and Turgenev,” playwright Sherry Coman depicts the enduring love between the two artists as a grand passion that fueled their artistic endeavors from the moment they met in 1843.
Coman paints a picture of a woman torn between the demands of her musical career and the two men in her life — Turgenev and her husband Louis. Always behind Pauline is Turgenev, the close friend of both the Viardots, following them around Europe to be near the love of his life.
Much of the material for this interesting script is drawn from the letters between the two. Quotations from them fuel the dramatization of their bond. (History suggests that their relationship was actually platonic and was romanticized through the letters they exchanged over long separations, which sometimes lasted years at a time.)
Encircled in the poetry of words, accompanied by music, movement and masks designed to give a larger-than-life atmosphere, “Pauline and Turgenev” has a dreamlike quality. Rather than aiming at realism by justifying an extra-marital affair or explaining the survival of a marriage, both script and production deliver the ambiance and theatricality of opera, spiced with the occasional philosophical debate.
The argument for art above personal passion — love fades; art is eternal — is presented by Pauline’s friend George Sand, who left her lover, Frederic Chopin, to further her art. The script offers the opposite view, as Pauline fights to develop her artistic soul through the love that she allows to burst into flame.
Micheline Chevrier’s strong directorial concept is in tune with the poetic mood of the script, but her impressionistic approach places form above feeling. Despite strong performances from a well-chosen cast, Viardot and Turgenev come through as pawns rather than people — instruments who reach the mind rather than the heart.