Notes and Editorial Reviews
Excellent recorded sound for the greatest of singer-actors in favourite roles.
Ask many opera-lovers who were the greatest opera singers and a small coterie of names occur regularly. Pavarotti and Callas will be frequently named. Add the caveat of great singing
actors and most will fall back on Callas, with a few remembering the likes of Tito Gobbi. Certainly Callas and Pavarotti made plenty of newspaper headlines. But the definition of ‘great singing actors’ must surely mean great as singers and equally great as actors. Both Callas and Gobbi were great actors on the operatic stage. On stage they were singers who lived the roles they were portraying. But, I would suggest that neither, in terms of absolute vocal
quality, deserves the accolade of ‘great’. In her relatively brief career Callas made many recordings, some with Gobbi. In my survey of her complete studio recordings (see
review). I include many caveats as to her vocal qualities whilst frequently admiring her characterisation. The same is true of Gobbi, who I was privileged to see in the theatre. A superb actor he lived the part he was singing. But in the cold light of listening to his recordings I cannot help but note the odd raw patches in his tone (see reviews of Gobbi as
Scarpia). Go back a generation to the first half of the twentieth century and two names stand out, Enrico Caruso and Fedor Chaliapin (1873-1938). Both made many recording in the 78rpm era. Without doubt Caruso was the finest tenor of his generation, in both the spinto and lyric fachs, when the species was far more proliferate than today (see
review). But the name that stands out among both commentators and colleagues, as one of the real all-time great singer-actors is that of Chaliapin.
Born in 1873, Chaliapin is far and away the best remembered of a magnificent quartet of rival contemporary Russian basses. It was not just his powerful and flexible vocal quality but also the magnetic power of his personality, the acuteness of his musical interpretations and the vividness of his performances. All these factors raised him above his contemporaries and are evident in these recordings. Famous colleagues such as Rosa Ponselle said of him
he was unrivalled as a singing actor in his age or any subsequent one. She also said
If a colleague gave him an inch, he would steal an entire scene. He was so artful about it that one wouldn't realize what was going on until it was too late. His powerful and flexible bass voice was employed in conjunction with a mesmerizing stage presence and superb acting ability. He is generally considered one of the supreme performers in the history of opera and is often credited with establishing the tradition of naturalistic acting.
He made records from the early 1900s to his death including live occasions such as his performances of Boris at Covent Garden in 1931. Boris remains his most famous role. He first sang it in 1898 at the Private Opera in Moscow and three years later at the Bolshoi, always in the Rimsky-Korsakov edition. It was an interpretation he repeated in Milan, Paris and New York as well as London. Just why he was so famous in this role can be heard in the four major extracts that extend from the
Prologue (tr.11) to the
Farewell and Death of Boris (tr.14) reflecting the various moods of the guilty monarch. Perhaps the best illustration of Chaliapin’s capacity to convey in his voice the character and words he is singing can be heard in
Pimen’s Monologue (tr.9) and Vaarlam’s brief roistering song from the same opera (tr.10). Pimen’s Monologue was recorded in 1910 with the other
Boris excerpts from the period 1925-1928. They also show the consistency of his vocal qualities across his long career. Most importantly these extracts, and others in this collection, achieve a remarkable acoustic standard.
Another role that Chaliapin made his own was the Miller in Dargomishky’s
Rusalka, a role he sang to acclaim at the Lyceum Theatre, London in 1931 at the time of the recordings here (trs. 3 and 4). His performances of Khan Konchak in Borodin’s
Prince Igor were another memorable feature of that season. His singing and expression are full of detail (tr.7) as are the subtly different tonal qualities in his rendition of Galitsky’s song and Igor’s aria from the same opera (trs. 5 and 6). Like the Dargomishky arias, the second two appear to be from a London recording. They have appeared from EMI previously (References CDH 76 10092 issued in 1988). There is greater aural clarity in this collection than on the earlier EMI Classics disc. This perhaps reflects the improvements in technology in the intervening years as well as access to pristine shellac and extends to the orchestral accompaniments. The fact that no recording details are given in this collection, allied to Chaliapin’s extensive discography, makes it very difficult to relate this collection to others.
Chaliapin possessed a high-lying bass voice with an unmistakable timbre that recorded well. He cut a prolific number of discs beginning in Russia with acoustic recordings made at the dawn of the 20th Century, and continuing through the early electrical (microphone) era. This collection of his favourite Russian bass roles in good recordings is thoroughly recommendable to connoisseurs and newcomers alike. As well as the track-listing, there is a very brief biography; both are in Roman and Cyrillic alphabets.
-- Robert J Farr, MusicWeb International
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