CHALIAPIN: A Critical Biography by Victor Borovsky

CHALIAPIN: A Critical Biography

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Since Russian-born music-historian Borovsky is too young to have heard Chaliapin (1873-1938) sing, and since he relies little on recordings, this is less a ""critical biography"" than an exercise in documentary reconstruction. Quoting in great chunks from reviews, letters, and memoirs of the period (including Chaliapin's own autobiographies), the author has pieced together a rich, evocative, role-by-role study of the basso's legendary career as opera's greatest actor-singer. Only in the early chapters is the approach conventionally chronological--as young Fedor is followed from peasant childhood in Kazan to teen-age work as laborer, stage extra, chorister, and (by 18) soloist with a touring company; from his one year of study in Tiflis (he was otherwise self-taught) to his 1895 debut with St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre and his 1896 move to the more daring Moscow Private Opera. Thereafter, Borovsky combines details from decades of performances at the Bolshoi and all over Europe to re-create, often moment by moment, Chaliapin's major portrayals: Boris Godunov, Dosifei (in Khovanshschina), and Salieri (in the Rimsky-Korsakov opera), all three prepared under the guidance of dear friend Rachmaninov; three utterly different devils (in Faust, Mefistofele, and The Demon); and, in addition to a dozen other Russian-opera roles, the three later, non-Russian triumphs--King Philip (Don Carlos), Basilio (The Barber of Seville), and Massenet's Don Quixote. Borovsky's treatment occasionally smacks of hagiography: ""His performances were in total harmony with the composer's intention, and their artistic validity can never be questioned."" But he gives due credit to those who influenced Chaliapin in his unprecedented blend of vocalism, psycho-realistic acting (subtle comparisons with Stanislavsky are made)--via makeup, costumes, movement--pictorial theatricality. As for more personal matters, Borovsky gives scanty attention to the singer's marriages and children; be acknowledges that Chaliapin could be hot-tempered and retractable, a demanding perfectionist, but was ""very stable""--not (as sometimes portrayed) a selfish skinflint. And it is stressed that Chaliapin, an exile in the 1920's and 30's, was apolitical--unlike Borovsky, whose anti-Soviet fervor occasionally becomes distractingly polemical. In sum: repetitious, often verbose or awkward--but essential, luxuriant reading nonetheless for all students and fans of serious opera performance, (With lavish illustrations and a complete discography by Allan Kelly and Vladimir Gurvich.)

Pub Date: May 13th, 1988
Publisher: Knopf