Fyodor Chaliapin’s fame is world-wide and unquestioned. Curiously, as sometimes happens in the case of the great names, analysis of the greatness is sometimes scant. A clue, in the case of Chaliapin, is that the one thing everyone agrees upon is that he was a very great actor. A vocal coach, whom I knew many years ago, had seen Chaliapin in Paris in the twenties, and told me that he was the greatest actor he had ever seen, before or since. If you think about it a moment, that is something not too commonly said about opera singers! I think it is truer in the case of the Russians, however, than of almost any other nation. The Russians, at least since the beginning of the 20th century, have tended, following Hellenists, to view the theater as the poetic activity most suited to the restoration of aesthetic life’s unified wholeness, as was the case, it was thought, in ancient Greece. Perhaps as a result of this intellectual prodding, the essential qualities of theatrical drama came to dominate both opera and ballet. Lyricism and great tragic acting come together, for example, in Russian historical operas such as Boris Godunov, in which Chaliapin was simply nonpareil. I have not been able to find a film version of Chaliapin as Boris Godunov, but there is a good recording, and there are good films of other theatrical pieces, so perhaps by putting the two together, we can get an idea. In the famous death scene that follows, there are several things to listen for, one of them a curiosity. At one point, Boris’ son comes forward, and you can hear him singing “padre mio…,” from which I take it that this was a recording made at the Met! Chaliapin’s remarkable exclamatory singing—or simple exclamation—can be heard around 3:00 into the clip, as he says “Ya Tsar!,” (I am the Tsar!) then “Bozhe!” (God!) and finally “Cmyert!” (Death!”) It’s bone-chilling. At the very end, as you hear him falling down on the floor, he says “Bozhe! Prosteetye! Prosteetye! Proste---t-----“ (“God! Forgive me….forgive me, for-give…….”) You can leave the video at 3:20 (He’s dead by then :)
It does not take great imagination to see what the power of that presentation must have been. We can get a very good idea indeed from the filmed version of the end of Don Quixote. In this clip, Don Quixote, exhausted and out of his mind, having chased phantoms around the land, lost in his reverie of reborn chivalry, is brought home to “begin a new life,” but of course it is to die, his dreams shattered, his books burned, and his despair total. When he begins to talk, and especially when he begins to sing, in this clip, you will need to turn the sound up. The words he says, before he sings, are: “I deceived you, Sancho…there is no island for you.” There are English subtitles, mercifully, because he is singing in English, but very thickly accented. He only sang Russian and French well. Here you can actually see the great tragedian in action (and the line between tragedy and melodrama was almost non-existent in the performing arts at this time):
It’s almost unbearable to watch. Can anyone deny that this was a very great tragedian?
As to the voice per se, I can only end by saying that it was a perfect instrument for projecting his acting. He was, in the truest and best sense of the word, a singing actor.