IN November 1949 a 35-year-old Bulgarian bass made his debut at Covent Garden in the title-role of Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov. He sang in Russian, while the rest of the cast sang in English and, though it was his first performance of the part, Boris Christoff scored an immediate triumph. The title-role of Boris Godunov is not long: the Tsar only makes three - or, in some versions of the opera, four - appearances. But Christoff's stage personality was so overwhelming, his performance so intense, that he completely dominated the work. By exploring every facet of the Tsar's character, from guilt-ridden tyrant to loving father, he built up the credible portrait of a complex human being.
Having previously appeared as Pimen amd Varlaam in the same work, Christoff sang Tsar Boris again a few weeks later at La Scala, Milan; during the next quarter of a century he repeated the role in most of the leading opera houses of Europe and some in North America. In the postwar period, few Russian singers were heard outside the Soviet Union, and a bass whose voice, style and pronunciation sounded as authentic as Christoff's did, was in great demand. In HMV's first complete recording of Boris Godunov, Christoff sang three parts: Boris, Pimen and Varlaam.
Boris Christoff was born in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, in 1914. His father, a teacher, was a keen amateur singer - a tenor - while his mother was of Russian origin. He studied in Sofia, where he obtained a Law degree and also sang, often as soloist, with the famous Gusla choir. Early in 1942 he was heard by King Boris, who was so impressed that he arranged for a scholarship to enable the young man to study singing in Italy. Christoff went to Rome and worked with the baritone Riccardo Stracciari for 18 months, until Rome fell to the Allies. Escaping to Salzburg, Christoff endeavoured to continue his studies. The end of the Second World War found him in a camp for displaced persons. On returning to Rome he resumed his lessons with Stracciari.
He made his concert debut in December 1945 at the Academy of St Cecilia in Rome; then early in 1946 he made his stage debut at Reggio Calabria as Colline in La Boheme, with such success that the 'Coat Song' had to be encored. The following year he sang for the first time at La Scala, Milan; appearances at Florence, Trieste, Venice and Rome, were followed by his first Boris at Covent Garden.
Christoff should have made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in 1950, as King Philip in Verdi's Don Carlos, but he was unable to obtain a visa for the United States and in fact never sang in opera in New York. He eventually made his US stage debut in 1956 at San Francisco as Boris. Meanwhile he did sing Philip, which was to become one of his finest roles, in 1950, at the Maggio Musicale in Florence. In 1951, he acquired another effective role, Procida in Les Vepres Siciliennes, which he sang both in Florence and at La Scala. In each case, Maria Callas sang the part of Helene. Christoff's later international reputation was based mainly on his interpretations of Verdi's bass roles and of his Russian repertory; Dosifey in Khovanshchina, both Prince Galitsky and Khan Konchak in Prince Igor, Kochubey in Mazeppa, Ivan Susanin in Glinka's A Life for the Tsar and, of course, Boris. However, during the early years of his career he sang a much wider spectrum of roles.
His debut concert had contained Wotan's 'Farewell' from Die Walkure and he sang other Wagner roles: King Henry in Lohengrin, King Mark in Tristan und Isolde, the Landgrave in Tannhauser on stage, as well as Gurnemanz in a famous Parsifal broadcast by RAI, Rome, in which Callas sang Kundry. His German roles also included Don Pizarro in Fidelio. In the French repertory he made an imposing Agamemnon in Gluck's Iphigenie en Aulide, displayed a special kind of black humour as Mephistopheles in Gounod's Faust and sang Creon in Cherubini's Medee. His Italian roles included Oroveso in Norma, Rodolfo in La sonnambula and Giorgio in I puritani. Later in his career he sang Bertram in Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable and Henry VIII in Anna Bolena.
Meanwhile he appeared at Rio de Janeiro, Barcelona, the Paris Opera and the Lyric Opera, Chicago, where he sang from 1957 to 1963; his roles there included Philip, Boris, Boito's Mefistofele, Padre Guardiano in La forza del destino, Zaccaria in Nabucco and Don Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia. In 1958 Christoff returned to London to sing King Philip in the famous Visconti production of Don Carlos, staged in celebration of the centenary of the present Covent Garden theatre.
As in the case of Boris, Christoff gave such a tremendous performance as the Spanish king that for many years it was almost impossible to imagine a different interpretation of the character. The sinister, black- clad monarch, leaning on a walking stick, as he fondles the wolf-hounds in the cloisters of St Yuste, the tired old man in the Spartan bedchamber who sings so movingly of the loneliness of his position, are ineffaceable memories.
The duet with Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, sung on that initial occasion by Tito Gobbi, Christoff's friend and his wife's brother-in-law, was equally memorable for its intensity, while who will ever forget the terrifying way in which he spat out the words 'Adultera consorte]' at his wife, Elisabeth de Valois, after finding a portrait of Carlos in her jewel case?
Christoff returned frequently to Covent Garden to sing Philip until 1979. He also sang Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra, when the partnership with Gobbi, who sang the Doge, was renewed, after a much-publicised quarrel in Chicago between the two singers had been made up. He appeared as Don Basilio, one of the few genuinely comic roles in his repertory, with the Royal Opera in Edinburgh. Another, more serious Rossini role, which he sang at La Scala, was the protagonist of Mose in Egitto.
In 1964 Christoff underwent an operation for the removal of a brain tumour and was unable to sing for over a year. He made his first appearance since the operation at Covent Garden in December 1965 as Boris. After the Coronation scene, by which time it was clear that the uniquely vibrant, black-toned voice was unchanged, torrential applause greeted the singer, who was visibly moved. Another emotional occasion took place in 1974, when he sang Boris again on the 25th anniversary of his Covent Garden debut, with all his habitual authority.
A superb recitalist, especially of Russian music, Christoff not only recorded the complete songs of Mussorgsky, but also the lesser known songs of Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev and Cui, the 'mighty handful' of Russian composers. Many of his stage roles were put on disc, including Ivan Susanin, Mephistopheles and Silva in Ernani. He also recorded Saul in Nielsen's Saul og David. In 1982, after singing King Philip at Parma, he gave a concert at Covent Garden that included arias from Iphigenie en Aulide, Verdi's Attila and Macbeth as well as the death scene from A Life for the Tsar, graphically illustrating the various paths taken by the singer during his long and illustrious career.