The soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, who has died aged 86, coloured her performances of opera, and especially of Russian song, so beautifully that full comprehension was not essential for enjoyment. Of course, once you did understand the words, you realised how much meaning she brought to them.
Possessed of a striking physical presence with lustrous dark hair, she was such a natural actor that she became the star of her generation at the Bolshoi opera company in Moscow, forging artistic relationships with the stage director Boris Pokrovsky and the conductor Alexander Melik-Pashaev. And – appropriately for a performer who sang with all the skill of an instrumentalist – for more than half a century she was married to Mstislav Rostropovich, not just a great cellist, but also a considerable conductor and pianist.
Their marriage – her third – came in 1955 after a whirlwind romance, with Rostropovich sweeping her off her feet, even though she was also being courted by the Soviet premier, Marshal Nikolai Bulganin. They became a stormy but potent combination on and off stage, and had two daughters, Olga and Elena.
At the opera, Tatiana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin was her talisman: she recorded it three times, in 1956, then in 1958 for a film – she should have been seen as well, but was too pregnant – and again in Paris in 1968 with Rostropovich conducting. A second key Tchaikovsky role was Lisa (The Queen of Spades); others included two from operas by Rimsky-Korsakov, Kupava (The Snow Maiden) and Marfa (The Tsar’s Bride), Cherubino (Le Nozze di Figaro), Madama Butterfly, Natasha (Prokofiev’s War and Peace), Aida and Tosca.
Through her husband she got to know Dmitri Shostakovich, who wrote two song cycles and an orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death for her, as well as the soprano part in his Fourteenth Symphony. In 1966 she filmed the title role of his opera Katerina Izmailova.
Her international career began in 1960 with the first of five visits to the US. But the Soviet authorities made life difficult for artists wanting to work abroad. After her first recital at Aldeburgh in 1961, Benjamin Britten wrote the soprano role in the War Requiem for her, but she was famously prevented from taking part in the 1962 premiere. She did, however, sing it in London the next year and recorded it under Britten’s direction – misunderstanding the Decca engineers’ arrangements, she threw a legendary fit at the sessions, but in the end all was well. In 1965 Britten wrote his Pushkin cycle The Poet’s Echo for her and Rostropovich, as pianist.
Born Galina Ivanova in Leningrad, she received her vocal talent from her father and her fiery temperament from her mother. But that was about as much as she did get from them, as they had little to do with her upbringing and she was mainly cared for by her paternal grandmother in the naval port of Kronstadt.
Her voice was with her from the beginning; and for her 10th birthday her mother gave her a gramophone and a recording of Eugene Onegin. The music absolutely possessed her, and it was no coincidence that it provided her most famous early role.
After surviving the wartime siege of Leningrad, she tried studying at the reopened Rimsky-Korsakov School but left when she realised that her natural voice was being ruined. Marriage to a sailor, Georgy Vishnevsky, proved equally disastrous, but she kept his name professionally.
She managed to join the Operetta theatre as a chorus member and bit-part singer, and in time-honoured fashion was given her big chance when the soubrette broke her leg. “That troupe became for me a genuine school – my only one,” she wrote in her extraordinary autobiography, Galina: A Russian Story (1984).
A second marriage to the violinist Mark Rubin, who became her manager, lasted 10 years, but their only child, a son, died after two months when she was 19. Going solo as a music-hall singer, Vishnevskaya had the good fortune to meet the voice teacher Vera Garina, who helped her find her true metier – she had thought she was a mezzo-soprano – and gave her the two-and-a-half octave range that she needed.
In 1951 she nearly died of tuberculosis, but the following year she stumbled on a competition for the Bolshoi. She won it and in October 1953 made a sensational debut as Tatiana. Leonore in Fidelio followed in 1954.
The support she and Rostropovich gave the writer and dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the late 1960s – even sheltering the beleaguered writer in their dacha – was too much for the Soviet regime, and in the early 1970s the couple were restricted to touring inside the USSR, before being exiled in 1974 and becoming “unpersons”. Vishnevskaya was removed from the official history of the Bolshoi theatre, and in 1978 the pair, living in the US and Europe, were stripped of their citizenship.
Four years later the soprano, by then in vocal decline, gave her last stage performances of Tatiana, at the Paris Opera. She continued to give recitals and record for a few more years, but her great days were over.
Only in 1990 did Vishnevskaya return to Russia, and not until 1992 was she reconciled with the Bolshoi. Much of the last part of her life was spent teaching at the Galina Vishnevskaya Centre for Opera Singing, opened in Moscow in 2002. Despite a difficult life, Vishnevskaya left enough of a recorded legacy to ensure her status as the great Russian female singer of her era, as pre-eminent as Antonina Nezhdanova had been before her.
Some of Vishnevskaya’s operatic recordings came too late but her Tatiana, Kupava, Leonore, Marfa, Natasha and Marina (Boris Godunov) were caught when she was at her peak. The Verdi and Britten Requiems and the various recordings of the Shostakovich Fourteenth are also memorable.
However, perhaps the song repertoire is even more potent, her mastery of it coming about because most of her recitals were given outside the Soviet Union. “Wanting to be understood by an audience that didn’t know Russian, I tried to paint musical pictures by emphasising the phrasing, using voice colour more boldly, and varying the shade and nuance,” she wrote. Her Mussorgsky song interpretations, and especially the Songs and Dances of Death, will stand the test of time.
Rostropovich died in 2007, and Vishnevskaya is survived by her daughters.
• Galina Pavlovna Vishnevskaya, soprano, born 25 October 1926; died 11 December 2012