with Chaliapin in the
title role at the Metropolitan
Opera House very good
If Papa had told an opera fan in later years that he saw Chaliapin in Mefistofele, it would have been like telling a baseball fan that he saw Babe Ruth swing a bat. Feodor Chaliapin was the most famous bass of his day, and he'd earned living legend status not only for the quality of his voice and his rise from humble Russian roots, but because he set new standards for stage presence and acting style. He "would have been an actor of world-wide reputation if he had been unable to sing," read a New York Times editorial tribute to Chaliapin after his death in 1938, "he linked together, as few singers of any era, the potencies of drama with song."
The Times reviewer Olin Downes was complementary toward the Mefistofele production Papa saw, though only grudgingly so; he seems to have disliked Arrigo Boito, the composer who based Mefistofele on Goethe's Faust. "That it is the work of a dilettante need not be denied," wrote Downes. "It is even questionable whether Boito was responsible for the orchestration." Still, he did find much to admire about the opera and thought it "well suited to Chaliapin's powers." I imagine that Chaliapin's portrayal of Mefistofele was, in fact, the best imaginable, no doubt a welcome relief to Papa, who had seen an unremarkable performer in the title role of Madame Butterfly a couple of days earlier.
Let's go back to the YouTube well once again for this recording of Chaliapin singing "Ave Signori (Hail, Sovereign Lord)" from Mefistofele.
References for this post:
- Chaliapin at Wikipedia
- Here's another nice biography of Chaliapin
- Arrigo Boito at Wikipedia
- The story of Mefistofele, with sound samples, at Opera Today
- The Mefistofele libretto, published in 1920 by the Metropolitan Opera, at Google Books
Top: Chaliapin in Mefistofele (1924). Library of Congress # LC-USZ62-53994
Bottom: Chaliapin in Mefistofele (1895). From Wikimedia Commons.