But this month has brought the retired opera star some good news: high praise from critics for her first leading role as a movie actress.
Vishnevskaya stars in Alexandra, the latest title from Alexander Sokurov, one of Russian cinema's leading auteurs. Best known in the U.S. for Russian Ark (2002) — which consists of a single, unedited 96-minute tracking shot of hundreds of performers in various rooms at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg — Sokurov has made 16 feature films and 28 documentaries, including one on Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya which was released last year. (Last month Sokurov directed live theater for the first time in his career, staging the Bolshoi Theater's first new production of Boris Godunov since 1948.)
The New York Times describes Alexandra as "a conceptually outrageous, uncharacteristically straightforward and enthralling story about a grandmother ... as she makes her way on train and on foot — pulling a shopping cart as if she were on her way to the market — to the Russian army camp where her 27-year-old officer grandson is stationed ... on the Chechen front."
Alexandra received its world premiere in the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival, which ended last Sunday night (May 27); unfortunately, neither director nor star was able to travel to France for the event because of health problems.
While the movie did not win any awards from the jury, it garnered high praise from the press. "Vishnevskaya is superb as the plucky old woman whose eyes convey the sadness of everything she sees," wrote The Hollywood Reporter. "Now in her early eighties, her face is still transcendently beautiful," said Peter Brunette in Screen Daily, "and leads easily toward the spirituality and otherworldliness that is often found in Sokurov's work." The Times's Manohla Dargis found that Vishnevskaya "brings a regal bearing to this potato-fed lump of a babushka ... puttering] about the camp and the adjacent Chechen town, uttering an endless stream of grandmotherly clucks and tuts." "A performance of monumental depth," wrote Jay Weissberg in Variety. "A life of struggle and dignity emanates from every pore. Sure, she's Mother Russia, but she's every mother viewing the wasted lives of young men and wondering why. Hers is no operatic performance, _ la Maria Callas: this is the soul of Eleonora Duse."
Surely the most renowned soprano the Soviet Union ever produced, Galina Vishnevskaya was in her day the prima donna assoluta of the Bolshoi Theater. She was hugely admired by her countrymen; the great poet Anna Akhmatova even wrote a piece titled "On hearing Vishnevskaya sing Mozart." The West never really got to hear her at her best: she was already 48 by the time she and Rostropovich emigrated in 1974. Since returning to Russia in the early 1990s, she founded the Galina Vishnevskaya Moscow Opera Center to train young singers and established with her husband the Vishnevskaya-Rostropovich Foundation, which provides medicine, food and equipment to children's hospitals in the former Soviet Union.
As Pravda pointed out in a feature earlier this month in advance of the Cannes Festival, Vishnevskaya proved her mettle as a dramatic actress years ago in the 1966 film of Katerina Izmailova, the toned-down Khrushchev-era revision of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. And she has occasionally worked as a dramatic actress since her return to Russia. In 1993 she made an acclaimed spoken-word debut at the Moscow Art Theater as Catherine the Great in Elena Gremina's play Behind the Mirror (which was not itself as well received, according to Pravda). The same year she appeared in The Provincial Benefit Performance, a film by television Alexander Belinsky adapted from several works by the 19th-century Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky. That performance found less favor with the critics, and she did no more film acting until Sokurov invited her to star in Alexandra.
"I had dreamed for many years of making a film with Vishnevskaya in a leading role," Sokurov told The Hollywood Reporter last week. "Without her, I would not have shot a single frame of the film."