Thursday, January 13, 2011


If there was a Michael Jackson of the late Tsarist and early Soviet period it was certainly the internationally famous and nationally adored opera star, Chaliapin, who famously played such roles as Boris Godunov, Don Quixote, and Mephistopheles. According to music historians, Chaliapin was one of the best actors (as well as singers) the opera has ever seen. Adopting a style of acting that was perfectly attuned to Stanislavsky's revolutionary new theory of acting, Chaliapin transformed himself into each new part he played, down to the tiniest mannerism, facial expression, and dab of personally applied makeup.

In fact, photos of his various performances, and indeed early films of other performances, demonstrate the power of these metamorphoses. The acclaimed opera star never looked the same twice: each new character was exceedingly original, as unlike any previous role as he was unlike Chaliapin, the man. He was, in other words, Marlon Brando avante la lettre, and he behaved as such, firing directors, debating performance ideas with Toscanini, and famously telling one of them: "Here on the stage, the actors are in charge." And no Chaliapin villain emerged without the capacity to inspire human empathy, even admiration, as well as pity, fear, or loathing.

Elisabeth Kapnist's documentary, Chaliapin: The Enchanter, traces Chaliapin's career from an impoverished, farming childhood in Kazan, when an abusive father drank heavily but failed to overcome Chaliapin's natural resilience, to early contact with the street theater at eight, to his triumphs in St. Petersburg (the Marinsky) and Moscow (the Bolshoi) and Paris (with Nijinsky, in Diaghilev's renowned Russian Seasons) and eventually abroad as an exile from Bolshevism. This story is a one of increasing aesthetic sophistication and self-assertion. It's also the story of the Russian avant garde, both in and outside of Russia, for Chaliapin maintained close ties to nearly all of Russia's cultural taste-makers, including Gorky, Bunin, Rachmaninoff, and many others. As the film reminds us, early twentieth century Russia and its diaspora was a rich cauldron of artistic experimentation. Theater, literature, and opera enriched one another throughout the years of Chaliapin's career, although Bolshevism eventually curtailed this synergy and artistic achievement in general.

Notwithstanding the great Bolshevik revolution, which divides Chaliapin's career into two distinct parts and sent Chaliapin abroad under looming threats to his very life on account of his irrepressible spirit--Soviet culture minister Lunacharsky told him "they will kill you: you are too independent--" Chaliapin had become the embodiment of Russian culture by the time of his enormous public funeral at a Parisian Russian Orthodox Church in 1938.

In Kapnist's film, Chaliapin's aged daughter describes her father as a "demi-god," someone larger than life, a citizen of the world who somehow managed to remain the epitome of Russia, that country that Chaliapin once said was "so absurd and so wonderful." To listen to the man was, said one music critic, like "having ants all over your body." It was impossible to remain unmoved.

1 comment:

  1. It seems strange that his name is so similar to Chaplin's. Maybe they were each other's doppelgaengers--both forced into exile after they offended the orthodox leadership.