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Boris Christoff : la vita, la voce, l'arte

af Carlo Curami

Andre forfattere: Riccardo Chailly (Bidragyder), James Conlon (Bidragyder), Remo Giazzoto (Bidragyder), Raina Kabaivanska (Bidragyder), Renata Tebaldi (Bidragyder)

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Carlo Curami
Maurizio Modugno

[Boris Christoff: The Life, The Voice, The Art]

Sofia: Literaturen Forum, Hardback, 1998.

8vo. 510 pp. 64 plates. In Bulgarian. Translated from the Italian by Neli Radanova-Kusheva. Chronology [pp. 347-473]. Repertoire [pp. 475-482]. Discography [pp. 483-504]. 32 plates with photos between pages 256 and 257.

First published in Italian as Boris Christoff: La Vita, La Voce, L'Arte, 1996.
Bulgarian translation, 1998.

Contents*

Eagles, Lions [foreword by the authors]

PART ONE

The Life
Chapter I: The Roots
Chapter II: The War
Chapter III: The Horizons of Fame
Chapter IV: The Flight to Italy and Beyond
Chapter V: The Wondrous Year
Chapter VI: America yes, America no
Chapter VII: All Roads Lead to… Paris
Chapter VIII: In an Old Box at La Scala
Chapter IX: Devils and Prophets, Witches and Maidens
Chapter X: South America, North America
Chapter XI: King in London
Chapter XII: The Khan of Chicago
Chapter XIII: Back to Life
Chapter XIV: Eastern Wind
Chapter XV: I See You Again, Beloved Shores of England and Denmark
Chapter XVI: Anniversaries
Chapter XVII: “Sempre caro mi fu quest’ermo colle…”
Chapter XVIII: Good Evening, I Am Boris Christoff
Chapter XIX: “A te l’estremo addio”

Testimonies
Renato Bruson, Our Duet
Riccardo Chailly, The Art and the Courage of Boris Christoff
James Conlon, The Last One of the Old Faith
Remo Giazotto, Boris Christoff Lives in the Memories of a Friend
Marcella Govoni, The Discovery of an Artist
Raina Kabaivanska, The Dream of Freedom and Success
Plamen Kartalov, School of Bel Canto and Life
Gabriele Pescatore, Thirty Years of Friendship
Paolo Silveri, The King
Giuseppe Taddei, In Vienna After the War
Renata Tebaldi, Besides One Titan
Georgi Danailov, Forgive Us, Boris Christoff!
Ermano Germanetti, A Letter from a Fan

The Press
Giorgio Gualerzi, Farewell, Boris, King of the Stage
Paolo Isotta, The Grand and Tragic Christoff
Piero Mioli, One Thousand and One Boris
Maurizio Papini, Bass Boris Christoff is Dead
Giorgio Pestelli, Boris Christoff, the Greatest Philip
Leonardo Pinzauti, Boris Christoff, the King
Daniele Spini, Boris Christoff, the Tragic King of Opera

PART TWO

The Art of Boris Christoff: My Artistic Credo

Roles**, arias, church and chamber music
Colline (La Boheme)
Cirillo (Fedora)
The Pharaoh (Moses)
Raimondo (Lucia di Lammermoor)
Rocco (Fidelio)
Pimen (Boris Godunov)
Ramfis (Aida)
De Grieux (Manon)
The Secretary of Raguza (Madona Imperia)
Timur (Turandot)
Padre Guardiano (La Forza del Destino)
King of Hearts (The Love for the Three Oranges)
King Marke (Tristan und Isolde)
Dosifei (Khovanshtina)
Hagen (Gotterdammerung)
Boris Godunov (Boris Godunov)
Heinrich der Vogler, (Lohengrin)
Il Cieco (Iris)
Cherevik (Sorochinsky Fair)
The gold merchant/Provost marshal, (Cardillac)
Jacopo Fiesco (Simon Boccanegra)
Kaspar (Der Freischutz)
Oroveso (Norma)
Sir Giorgio (Puritani)
Conte Robinson (Il Matrimonio Segretto)
Seneca (L’Incoronazione di Poppea)
Banco (Macbeth)
Mephistopheles (Faust)
Hermann (Tannhauser)
Philip II (Don Carlo)
Agamemnon (Iphigenia in Aulis)
Gurnemanz (Parsifal)
Rodolfo (La sonnambula)
Galitsky (Prince Igor)
Konchak (Prince Igor)
Ruy Gomez da Silva (Ernani)
Giovanni da Procida (I Vespri Siciliani)
Creon (Orpheus et Euridice)
Moses (Moses)
Mefistofele (Mefistofele)
Aeneas (Aeneas)
Kochubey (Mazeppa)
Zaccaria (Nabucco)
Creon (Medee)
Polyphem (Acis et Galatea)
Giulio Cesare (Giulio Cesare)
Sarastro (Die Zauberflote)
Don Basilio (Il Barbiere di Siviglia)
Don Quixotte (Don Quixotte)
Ivan Susanin (A Life for the Tsar)
Tsar Dodon (Il Galo d’Oro)
Pogner (Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg)
Attila (Attila)
Pizzaro (Fidelio)
Tsar Ivan (Ivan le Terribile)
Bertram (Robert le Diable)
Varlaam (Boris Godunov)
Saul (Saul and David)
Massimilian Moor (I Masnadieri)
Henry VIII (Anna Bolena)
Arias
Oratorio, Church Music
Matthaus Passion (Bach)
Messiah (Handel)
Ein deutsches Requiem (Brahms)
Requiem (Verdi)
La Betulia Liberata (Mozart)
Orthodox Chants
Liturgia Domestica (Gretchaninov)
Chamber Music

PART THREE

Chronology
Repertoire
Arias from operas, concert arias, cantatas
Discography
Awards

*All chapter titles literally translated from the Bulgarian. Square brackets omitted for the sake of clarity.

**In chronological order of their first performance.

========================================================

This massive book is the only in-depth study of Boris Christoff’s “life, voice and art” (in reverse order of their importance) ever published in any language. It has never been translated into English and now, nearly twenty years after its original publication, seems unlikely that it will ever be. The Italian original and the Bulgarian translation are still available, if far from cheap, and they are worth having even if your knowledge of these languages is very imperfect. The Chronology alone is worth the price of admission – that is, if the art of Boris Christoff is something special to you.

The first thing about this book that must be said – and stressed – is the wealth of defects. The scholarship of the biographical part is not just sloppy. It is non-existent. There is not a single foot- or endnote (and very, very few references in the text) to account for the impressive amount of detail on those 160 pages. The analyses of Christoff’s roles and recordings, another 120 pages, are full of embarrassing rhetoric, just as tedious as it is vacuous; the obituaries that conclude the first part are even worse. Finally, the book is riddled with mistakes. The main text and especially the Chronology and the Discography are full of wrong years or confusing alternative titles. I don’t know how many of these mistakes were inherent in the Italian original and how many were introduced in the Bulgarian edition (though the latter is fully to blame for the abnormal amount of typos and the linguistic hotchpotch of the final sections).

These are grave defects that one should keep in mind. Now a few words about the extenuating circumstances. They attempt to explain why the book is nevertheless an obligatory addition to your shelves – if, I repeat, you are seriously interested in Boris Christoff.

First of all, the Christoff buff doesn’t have much choice. Books about him are very few and usually amount, to say the best about them, to mediocre exercises in hero worship. This one is more, a good deal more than that. For all its defects, the book of signori Curami and Modugno is infinitely superior to all others taken together. It does justice to the life and, more importantly, to the art of Boris Christoff. Though appreciative and often effusive, it is not a paean of praise. As the authors observe in their foreword, such a long and varied career cannot be without some questionable artistic decisions and controversial interpretations. These are duly noted and discussed, but no great fuss is made about them. On the whole, the authorial balance is rather admirable throughout.

In the absence of any cited sources, the best “proof of veracity” must be the credentials of the authors. These are not negligible. Both Carlo Curami and Maurizio Modugno (though mostly the latter) knew Boris Christoff in his twilight years through opera performances, concerts, interviews and personal meetings. Both discussed with him the possibility of writing a large-scale study of his life and art, something which Boris, with perfectly judged and fully justified lack of modesty, felt to be necessary. After the artist’s death in 1993, the authors discovered that their critical evaluations sufficiently overlap to endure the trials of co-authorship. Signor Curami took the biography from 1959 to 1968, the analysis of the Russian and the German roles, the Discography and the Repertoire. Signor Modugno is responsible for the rest of the biography, the Italian and the French roles, the Chronology and the testimonies.

So this book is sort of “authorized”. The authors had access to Christoff’s vast personal archive and his reminiscences, apparently supplied in preparation for this book, are extensively quoted. Many of the excellent photos and virtually all of the letters could only have come from the same source. As professional music critics, the authors must have been familiar with the rich vaults of RAI and the archives of various Italian opera houses as well, though it remains doubtful if they did any primary research, in situ or by proxy, in England, France and the US, all countries in which Boris made an important, though less substantial than in Italy, impact.

In sum, the authors were well-qualified and well-connected to produce a remarkable book. And, in fact, they did.

The biographical part is packed with information and carefully balanced. The years of struggle, including some harrowing moments during World War II, the incessant on- and off-stage conflicts, the personal and familial tribulations, they are all here; but they are not in the least sensationalised. Facts and figures may not be entirely reliable; they must always be taken cum grano salis and, whenever possible (which is seldom), verified independently. The authorial interpretation is now and then likewise suspicious. It is unlikely, to take but a single instance, that the intense quarrel with Ghiaurov could have been caused by his standing the Christoffs up at a special pre-arranged dinner. The political animosity between them, rumours of which have been circulating for ages, seems like a more likely cause. All the same, reliable or not, you won’t find one tenth of the information here in the other books, not to mention lesser sources like articles, interviews or liner notes. The description of the career is very detailed but suffers, as usual, from overzealous reliance on the critical authorities. Nothing is more tedious than endless quoting of old reviews. Nevertheless, you get a vivid idea of Boris Christoff’s industry, dedication and versatility.

There are, of course, plenty of anecdotes on these pages. How many of them happened as they are related here, how many were romantically coloured by fanciful memory, how many were insignificant episodes inflated by hungry journalists, and how many are pure fiction – it is hard to say. I want to mention two because they are not just amusing, but I think they illustrate (whether true or not) the strength of character typical for Boris as well as his underrated, almost unknown indeed, sense of humour. One of the less brilliant notions of the critics, parroted through the years with unfailing regularity, is the comparison between Boris Christoff and Feodor Chaliapin, particularly as regards their shattering interpretations of Boris Godunov. The practice apparently started very early in his career and Boris, understandably, had little patience with it. A French journalist once asked him what he thought of his legendary Russian predecessor. Boris replied with a killing dose of sarcasm: “Chaliapin? I’ve never heard that name!” Another time, at a party, an elderly lady passionately proclaimed to his face: “You sing like Chaliapin!” The answer was totally uncompromising: “I sing like I!”

Best of all, well over half of these 500 pages is dedicated to painstaking discussion of what Boris achieved, and of what he left, in the vastly different fields of opera, lieder and religious music during the 40-odd years of his career. To be sure, much of it is affected nonsense worth skipping; but among the purple excess, lurking timidly, there are many valuable bits. The authors are particularly insightful when they compare different recordings of the same work (e.g. the cuts in several versions of Don Carlo or the pirate recordings of Boris Godunov from 1970 and 1974) or place Boris Christoff’s interpretations in their historical context (e.g. his almost single-handed revival of Verdi’s Attila in the 1960s or his “purification” of Boito’s Mefistofele from the old pranks). Usually they select what they think is the best recording and go through it commenting, with a good deal of extravagance certainly, but sometimes with considerable insight as well. It is fascinating, to me anyway, to learn that the sound that accompanies “No, giammai” from the duet with the Great Inquisitor in the 1958 live recording of Don Carlo is actually Boris Christoff’s fist smashing on the king’s desk. This “parasitic” sound can be heard on other “live” recordings, too, and it brings vividly to life the awesome drama in one of Verdi’s greatest scenes. And I really like this elegant jibe at the stupidity of recording companies:

The history of discographic production from the early 1950s is strange indeed, especially that of HMV, then led by Walter Legge: great recording institution with unbelievable courage, yet at the same time banalities, missed opportunities and unrealized recordings which breed animosity and regret equal to the gratitude and enthusiasm about what was recorded and has entered the catalogues. The case of “Nabucco” is typical. To the present day, it remains mystery to us why Legge did not record it when he had the greatest exponents of the three leading parts – Maria Callas, Tito Gobbi and Boris Christoff. With Gui, Serafin or Votto on the rostrum, this recording not only would have left a marked artistic trace, but it would also have brought benefits that must on no account be neglected.

The testimonies are among the most interesting pieces in the book. They cover the whole gamut from legendary artists (Renata Tebaldi) to completely obscure singers (Marcella Govoni, the lady who sang Mimi during Boris’ operatic debut as Colline), from personal friends (Pescatore, Giazotto) to casual acquaintances (Kabaivanska), and from lengthy analyses of considerable merit (Conlon, Chailly, two notable conductors who worked with Boris in some of his last performances) to moving personal reminiscences (Kartalov, Taddei, Bruson, Conlon again). Virtually all of these people testify that Boris, a notoriously difficult man to get along with, was extremely kind and considerate off-stage. But one does get the impression – well, at least I do – that onstage he was a man who didn’t like to have his opinions contradicted or his ideas thwarted. I hasten to add that these opinions and ideas, the witnesses agree, were not mere caprice. They were the result of lifelong study by a highly cultured, intelligent and sensitive man, avid collector of books, paintings and fine art. By modern standards, Boris took some outrageous liberties with the works he sang, freely modulating the tempi and sometimes even changing the notes. These changes, as Messrs Conlon and Chailly marvel, uncannily often sound inevitable.

The Chronology, the Repertoire and the Discography in the end, incomplete, dated and full of blatant errors as they may be, are a gold mine of raw data. Every concert, every opera and every recording in which Boris Christoff ever appeared is listed. Dates, venues, programs, casts, conductors, pianists and labels are given. Small wonder the Chronology alone is some 125 pages long! I have processed some of these data, fixed as many errors as I could (Heaven knows how many remain unfixed!) and I would like to share with you the impressive figures I have thus obtained.

The three careers of Boris Christoff, lieder singer, operatic star and recording artist, lasted for 42, 35 and 31 years, respectively. During this time he appeared onstage 1016 times, including 782 times in complete operas (only 28 of them were concert performances, the rest were full-scale stage productions with all complications that that implies) and 234 concerts (153 with orchestra, including vocal and choral works, and 81 with piano accompaniment). The total repertoire covered by Boris Christoff, including duplications of arias he sang both in the opera house and on the concert stage, include 56 operas (in two of them he sang two roles at the same production), 19 oratorios, and 204 arias and lieder. At the time of writing (of this review, not of the book), no fewer than 405 separate recordings with his voice have been released, including 62 complete operas, 80 arias, 5 oratorios and 258 lieder. I think these figures are revealing. They may well be wrong. But they are not much wrong. For more information on this matter, see Boris Christoff by the Numbers.

I should like to finish by quoting the first paragraph of Boris Christoff’s artistic credo, the few pages in the book written by him. The piece is undated, but internal evidence suggests that it was written in the early 1970s. Despite one or two passages where I am at loss what exactly he wants to say, Boris is surprisingly articulate with words. I say “surprisingly” because operatic artists are usually articulate with words only if they happen to be set to great music. In this respect, as in so many others, Boris Christoff, a serious, erudite and thoughtful man as evident from his interviews, appears to have been an exception. This opening paragraph seems to me to sum up the man and the artist as well as they can be summed up in a few lines:

The most difficult part of our profession is practiced at home. In the theatre or the concert hall one always manages somehow, better or worse. It is enough to give the best he is capable of and he is saved. But at home he must have the perseverance to practice every day, even when the voice is in good shape and he feels healthy.

PS The Boris Christoff Musical Society, based in Stara Zagora, Bulgaria, offers for free download scans of the Chronology and the Discography. ( )
1 stem Waldstein | Sep 29, 2014 |
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Carlo Curamiprimær forfatteralle udgaverberegnet
Chailly, RiccardoBidragydermedforfatteralle udgaverbekræftet
Conlon, JamesBidragydermedforfatteralle udgaverbekræftet
Giazzoto, RemoBidragydermedforfatteralle udgaverbekræftet
Kabaivanska, RainaBidragydermedforfatteralle udgaverbekræftet
Tebaldi, RenataBidragydermedforfatteralle udgaverbekræftet
Maurizio ModugnoForfattermedforfatternogle udgaverbekræftet
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