Chaliapin the Enchanter: A film by Elisabeth Kapnist

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Chaliapin the Enchanter
LABELS: Warner
PERFORMER: Fyodor Chaliapin (bass-baritone); with Sergei Leiferkus, Alexei Mochalov
CATALOGUE NO: 50 51865 211525

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One of Chaliapin’s earliest and enduring successes was as the Miller in Dargomyzhsky’s Rusalka. So it is slightly disconcerting that the Russian-language narrative to this documentary attributes the opera to Rimsky-Korsakov, the English subtitles disguising the error by omitting the composer’s name altogether.

This is not, however, a major drawback in a fascinating film that traces the great Russian bass’s career from provincial bit-parts to fame in St Petersburg and Moscow and on to international stardom. Well-chosen stills and movie footage attest to his genial personality, and the soundtrack confirms that his magnificent, sonorous voice was equally effective in Russian folksongs or Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov.

If history has tended to ascribe to Chaliapin a degree of theatrical histrionics, it is valuable to be reminded that his attitude to acting on stage was sparked by what he saw as ‘falsehood’ and ‘lifelessness’ in the productions he witnessed from the wings in his early years at the Mariinsky Theatre.

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His absorption in a character’s psychology and his realism of gesture were revolutionary, and found a counterpart in Konstantin Stanislavsky’s work in the straight theatre. This film places Chaliapin fairly in his historical context, and excerpts of his singing are potently evocative. Geoffrey Norris