Let’s face it: most of the superstars of the opera world who came to prominence in the first decade of the 20th century are forgotten now—even such once-huge names as Pol Plançon, Luisa Tetrazzini, Johanna Gadski, Louise Homer, Alessandro Bonci, Leo Slezak, Giovanni Zenatello, Titta Ruffo, Giuseppe de Luca, Adamo Didur and Marcel Journet—except by old fogey collectors (hey, I was one of them once, so don’t complain!). The only four names from that era who still have some currency among modern listeners are John McCormack, Enrico Caruso, Ernestine Schumann-Heink and Feodor Chaliapin, all because they were not only superior voices but also superior communicators. Their recordings are not just good, they are “alive” in a way that other singers’ recordings simply are not.
Yet of those four, a strong argument could be made that Chaliapin was the greatest of them all, and not just the greatest as an opera singer. He revolutionized stage acting, not just in the opera world but in general: Stanislavsky based his method of acting on Chaliapin, not the other way round, and both Lon Chaney and the rest of the acting world can thank Chaliapin for developing his own methods of stage makeup, which led to far more graphic and realistic presentations of characters onstage. His goal was not, as in the case of Italian baritone Mattia Battistini, to be a “barrister” for his characters, representing their feelings and motivations but not being the character himself. His goal was, as he put it, “dramatic truth,” and in that pursuit he was willing to bend and stretch the notes of the music he sang in order to emphasize the meaning and feeling of the words.
This last part of Chaliapin’s art is the most controversial. With the exception of certain Russian operas, Chaliapin’s approach tended to distort the musical line, particularly in Italian opera, yet when he appeared as a guest artist at La Scala in 1901 in Boito’s Mefistofele, the musically meticulous Arturo Toscanini allowed him to do some things he would never have accepted a decade or so later. His only complaint was that Chaliapin was “marking” his part—singing sotto voce—in rehearsal. “Signor Chaliapin!” cried the Maestro. “Unfortunately, we have not had the pleasure of hearing you sing at the Imperial Russian Opera. Could you please sing in full voice so that we may judge how you will do this role?” Chaliapin sang out. Toscanini was bowled over. Years later, when the bass returned to the Metropolitan Opera after a 13-year hiatus, one of the tenors he sang with was Beniamino Gigli, noted for having the most beautiful and perfectly-placed voice of any Italian singer. Gigli later said that “Chaliapin’s singing was as great as his acting. His voice was beautiful in texture, perfectly produced, thrilling in range and power; his vocalism was an outstanding exhibition of breath control, tonal production and phrasing.” This can be easily borne out by his recording of Anton Rubinstein’s Persian Love Song No. 9, subtitled The Turbulent Waters of Kur. Made in 1931 when he was 58 years old and had been using his voice in a very hard way for at least 33 years, it features a final chorus sung entirely in a high, soft head voice, what voice teachers refer to as a fil di voce, and both his pitch and his breath control are perfect. It could easily ne held up as a model of bel canto singing from an artist who was, if anything, anti-bel canto in his general approach.
Indeed, Chaliapin’s approach to the bel canto roles he did choose to sing—Leporello in Don Giovanni, Don Basilio in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Oroveso in Norma and Count Rodolfo in La Sonnambula—was to give specific emphasis to the dramatic situation to the expense of the lyric line. He did the same thing in certain French works as well, most notably Mephistopheles in Gounod’s Faust in the French songs of Massenet. This sounds unsettling to modern ears more used to musically strict, consonant readings of the score. Chaliapin could have cared less. He was, as I say, interested in dramatic truth, not a continuous lyric line. Toscanini allowed him to do certain things in Mefistofele because he realized that Chaliapin was not being willful, but had clearly and meticulously thought all of his effects out beforehand and was, as he was wont to say, a “serious artist.” When rehearsing the opera at La Scala, Toscanini tried to show Chaliapin how to stand on stage as the devil. “You fold your arms in front of you, you know, and look evil and menacing.” “Thank you for your suggestion, maestro,” Chaliapin replied, “but may I try it my way and see if you like it?” Toscanini agreed. Chaliapin transformed his body into a twisting, demonic thing, menacing even in the confines of the rehearsal area. Toscanini was convinced. Years later, when he went to see Chaliapin sing Boris Godunov, he told critic B.H. Haggin that he was perfection. “If I had been a woman, I would have kissed him!” said Toscanini. Rare praise indeed from a man thought of as an inflexible martinet, but chaliapin returned the compliment. In his memoir Man and Mask (1932), he claimed that there were only two truly great conductors in his opinion, Toscanini and Sergei Rachmaninov.
Chaliapin’s first appearances at the Metropolitan, 1907-08, came in the season just before Toscanini was hired as general music director. The conductor of his debut in Mefistofele (November 20, 1907) was the little-known Rodolfo Ferrari, but the conductor of his Don Giovanni (Leporello) was none other than Gustav Mahler. It was said for many years that Chaliapin, singing the devil in a flesh-colored body suit, so shocked and offended the Met audience that he was not asked back the next year, but the reviews of his debut by Richard Aldrich in the New York Times and an anonymous reviewer in the New York Press say otherwise. Aldrich was impressed by the dramatic effects he made but complained that he was not in good voice: “There were evidences of his hoarseness, and, indeed, it was at one time doubtful whether he would be able to make his appearance at all last night. He made a deep impression, nevertheless…Mr. Chaliapin was a striking and singular Mefistofele, seeking apparently to emphasize all the disagreeable traits that could be attributed to the Prince of the Powers of Darkness. He is of herculean size and an actor of resource and skill.” The New York Press reviewer went even further: “Indeed, the greeting given to the Russian basso not only by the musical masses, but by critically experienced listeners, surpassed anything New Yorkers had experienced since they were introduced to the art of Caruso. Of course a tenor is a tenor, and no bass can expect to cope with the high tonal throbs of the favored one of the gods. But, allowing for the natural disadvantages in the popular ear of a low voice, the Russian singer accomplished wonders. One was reminded of Caruso nights, so boisterous were the demonstrations of approval in the standing room down stairs and the spaces near the dome.” I have to believe, then, that the negative impressions he purportedly made of a “heathen” who performed “near naked” came from the Met board of directors, not the paying customers.
Still, it was obvious to all that this was an extraordinary talent, one quite different from the norm, and one wonders how the two of them vied for applause the night Caruso sang Faust (in the Gounod opera) opposite Chaliapin’s Mephisto (January 6, 1908). His Met Don Giovanni, Mahler aside, was an all-star event featuring Antonio Scotti (Giovanni), Emma Eames (Donna Anna), Johanna Gadski (Donna Elvira), Alessandro Bonci (Don Ottavio) and Marcella Sembrich (Zerlina). The real reason why Chaliapin did not return the next year was that he wanted more money than he had received for the 1907-08 season and the board wouldn’t approve it.
As it turned out, of course, the Met needed Chaliapin far more than Chaliapin needed the Met. His way of creating a living character moved into a deeper exploration of the state of the soul. Four first-hand summations of his talents by those who heard or worked with him sum it up perfectly. Richard Capell wrote in 1914 that “For Chaliapin the singer, the tone-color is all that counts and for the sake of heightening the dramatic color on a word he willingly sacrifices beautiful tone—which to an Italian singer would seem madness. And the truth and directness of his singing are such that one forgets it is singing; singing usually implies some strain or effort, but Chaliapin’s seems the most inevitably natural utterance.” From Ezio Pinza, who sang opposite his Boris Godunov in 1927: “I was happy to sing Pimen and watch Chaliapin as Boris. He was a superlative actor, so compelling that only my professional experience and perfect knowledge of my role saved me time and again from missing cues, so absorbed was I in watching him act.” Lotte Lehmann, who sang Margherita opposite his Faust in Gounod’s opera, recalled that “The impression he made on me was indescribable. After the scene when Mephistopheles challenges nature to help him in the corruption of the innocent Marguerite, he stood like a tree, perfectly still against the background. He gave the impression of being a tree, and then quite suddenly, he had disappeared, as if blown away. I did not see him sneak off, and I have no idea how he managed it, but it was like black magic. At the end of the act, in the embrace, a tall figure appeared above me that twisted its way along the window like some frightful spider, seeming to encircle Faust and me. An indefinable terror made me go cold. This was no longer opera, this was turned into some terrible reality. And when the curtain came down, and Mephostipheles changed back into Chaliapin, I breathed a sigh of relief.”
But the best summary of this great and gifted artist came from the eminent Russian critic Alexander Amphiteatrov. “Chaliapin is the only one who, when I listen to him, never makes me feel that the impression I have of art suffers a painful comparison between past and present; on the contrary, the more I listen, the more convinced I become that this is new, fresh and infinitely more vigorous than anything that has gone before on the lyric stage. This is an artist such as has never been before, the begetter of a new force in art, a reformer creating a new school…when you go to hear Chaliapin, you don’t even remember that you have gone to hear ‘a bass.’ What you want is Chaliapin, not his ability to sing loud or soft notes in the order required by the part, but his extraordinary talent for thinking in sounds—a wonderful new revelation which the arrival of this strange man has brought to singers.”
Over the course of 38 years, from 1898 (his first cylinders) to 1936, Chaliapin made a surprisingly small number of recordings, a bit over 200. (Click here to pull up his full discography.) Compare this to, say, the 240 sides that Caruso made between 1902 and 1920, a mere 18 years. Added to those we have some extremely precious live performances from Covent Garden in 1926-28, excerpts from Gounod’s Faust, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri, and his signature role, Boris Godunov. In 1931 he made two versions of the same film, Don Quixote, in French and English. The supporting casts were not the same. Although the print of the English version is in better condition and the supporting cast superior, I prefer hearing Chaliapin speak and sing in French which he is more comfortable with, but both versions show what a great actor he was. But why Don Quixote? Or, more to the point, why nothing from Boris Godunov? Yes, it’s nice to hear him do the role live—there’s an extra dimension to both the Clock Scene and the farewell, prayer and death of Boris that are missing from his commercial recordings—but do you mean to tell me that no one had the money or the willingness to film even a couple of scenes from Boris with him? I find that hard to believe. In the meantime he became one of the most famous and sought-after vocal recitalists in the world, promoted in the U.S. by Sol Hurok. Sometime in the early 1930s he developed kidney problems, for which he went annually to health spas to try to cure, but it eventually caught up with him. He died on April 12, 1938 at the age of 65.
If you want to get an idea of how Chaliapin played Boris, I recommend that you see the 1953 film Tonight We Sing. Based on the life of Sol Hurok, it features Pinza as Chaliapin, and for once the Italian bass turns in a superb acting performance. He gets the Russian bass down pat, even in the “offstage” scenes, but especially in the Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov. No, it’s not the real Chaliapin but—as promoters are wont to say nowadays—an incredible simulation.
Still, you need to go out of your way to hear and see the real Chaliapin. The Don Quixote film is here; you can look up the recordings as you have time for. He was, indeed, the greatest artist of his time, perhaps of all time.
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley