Sad fete for an operatic son

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FYODOR CHALIAPIN, the great Russian opera singer, must have turned in his grave a few times over the weekend after Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre laid on a ghastly evening to mark the 120th anniversary of his birth.

Saturday's show looked promising before the curtain rose as strains of Chaliapin's own gorgeous bass voice sounded in a 1936 recording of a Russian folk song. If you closed your eyes, you could imagine he was on stage.

But then the gold and red curtains, still embroidered with hammers and sickles despite the collapse of Communism, opened to reveal a white plaster bust of the singer in exactly the same style as the millions of busts of Lenin which used to adorn factories, schools and offices across the old Soviet Union. Various People's Artists trooped on to perform opera arias and folk songs from Chaliapin's repertoire but they appeared to be unaware of his philosophy of musical theatre.

Chaliapin, who began what was to become a glittering singing career as a humble church choirboy in his native Kazan in the 1880s, was a great reformer of the opera. He believed it was not sufficient to stand on stage and sing in a self-satisfied manner. The opera star had to put his heart into the music and act convincingly as well to make his character live. This sounds obvious today but was a radical idea in the 19th century.

The People's Artists sang like stuffed dummies. Worst of all was Lyudmila Zykina, a great folk performer in her day, who stood solid and garishly coloured as an enormous iced cake and mouthed to a recording.

The audience forgave Chaliapin for singing on record. He had, after all, been dead since 1938. But the public was under the impression that Ms Zykina was still alive.

Perhaps one should not be too harsh on the Bolshoi. The members are deeply depressed, because the theatre must soon close for a full renovation and, despite government promises, no temporary home has been found. Performers are leaving in droves and those remaining threaten to strike because of low wages.

Chaliapin died in exile in Paris, and only a few years ago the Soviet authorities gave permission for his body to be re-buried in Russian soil.

Elsewhere in Moscow, celebrations of the anniversary were better received. And the Chaliapin Museum, in the pretty pastel mansion where the singer lived until the Bolsheviks nationalised it, reported a veritable 'pilgrimage' attending an anniversary exhibition, in which you can listen to his recordings in the White Room, where he used to rehearse every morning with Rachmaninov.