Set against the backdrop of the tumultuous events of 19th century Europe, An Unofficial Marriage dramatizes the equally tumultuous real-life love affair of two great artists—the famous Russian author, Ivan Turgenev, and the celebrated French opera singer, Pauline Viardot. From the moment he encounters her on the St. Petersburg stage, Ivan falls completely for Pauline. Though Pauline returns his feelings, she is bound by her singular passion for her art and her devotion to her gentle, older husband, Louis. Nevertheless, Ivan pursues Pauline across countries and continents—from Russia to France to Germany to Prussia—and in the decades that follow their fateful meeting, the lives of Pauline, Ivan, and Louis remain permanently intertwined as the lovers face jealousy, separation, the French Revolution of 1848, the cholera epidemic of 1849, the Franco-Prussian War, Turgenev’s arrest in Russia, Louis’s heartbreak and resignation, and the highs and lows of their artistic careers. “You know those unofficial marriages,” Turgenev would write almost thirty years after meeting Pauline, “They sometimes turn out more poisonous than the accepted form.”
With beautiful and compelling prose and employing multiple perspectives, Joie Davidow (who herself has a background in opera) illuminates not only the interior lives of these two intensely passionate artists, but also the grand historic moments that Pauline and Ivan experienced and the celebrated figures who moved in their circles—including George Sand, Leo Tolstoy, Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, and Ary Scheffer—providing insight into the dynamic worlds of 19th century opera, literature, art, and politics. Epic in the tradition of the Russian writers whom we encounter, and as romantic and tragic as the operas that Pauline Viardot performs in, An Unofficial Marriage brings to life with great scope and great humanity this captivating story from the past and explores timeless questions about the relationship between art and passion and the complex workings of the human heart.
Davidow is in conversation with Esmerelda Santiago.
Produced by Maddie Gobbo, Lance Morgan, & Michael Kowaleski
Theme: "I Love All My Friends," an unreleased demo by Fragile Gang.
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