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 alegendary 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.