Boris Christoff: Italian Opera Arias; Russian Opera; Russian Songs and Sacred Music
Nimbus Prima Voce NI 7961/3, (3 CDs) 70:19; 71:56; 72:25 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:
The great Bulgarian basso Boris Christoff (1914-1993) dominated his chosen repertoire, which extended well beyond his major role of Boris Godunov into French and Italian opera, Beethoven, Wagner, Gluck, Handel, and Hindemith. Having studied with Riccardo Stracciari, Christoff made his operatic debut in Rome in 1946 and his La Scala debut in 1947, where he would collaborate with Maria Callas, Franco Corelli, Giuseppe Di Stefano, and Sandor Konya. In 1949 he appeared in Versona in Wagner’s Lohengrin with Gianni Poggi as Lohengrin and Renata Tebaldi as Elsa. It was then Christoff assumed the role of Boris Godunov, building upon that characterization to create King Philip in Don Carlo and Rocco in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Only in 1956 did Christoff finally appear at the MET, winning all hearts with his King Philip in Verdi’s Don Carlo. “His voice is. . .warm, velvety, and noble, his acting comes from the heart, and it is illuminated by intellect. . .Boris Christoff remains the most magnificent bass of our time,” so said a critic for La Lettre, France, 1983.
Significantly, this major restoration provides us Christoff in top form, 1949-1955, ranging from his work with Herbert von Karajan–with whom he broke off relations after their disagreements on suitable repertory–and Issay Dobrowen, particularly their marvelous 1952 complete production of Boris Godunov, to his La Scala repertory with conductors Gui, Karajan, and Malko. The group of eleven Russian songs and liturgical pieces, recorded 1951-1954, include work with the Feodor Potorzhinski Russian Choir, Issay Dobrowen–in the eternal Song of the Volga Boatmen–and veteran piano accompanist Gerald Moore. Too often associated with only resonant power, Christoff reveals subtle inflections of style, especially in the opening “Madamina,” Leporello’s Catalogue Aria from Don Giovanni, a mixture of lithe wit and admirable grace. Religious brooding permeates “Ite sul colle” from Bellini’s Norma, Oroveso’s aria of heavy anticipation for a signal for revolt. Elegance of line dominates Count Rodolfo’s aria “Vi ravviso” from La Sonambula, a bitterly melancholy recollection of lost love. The reproachful “Infelice” from Ernani has the elderly Don Ruy Gomez de Silva upbraiding his fiancee Elvira for permitting rivals to duel for her hand. The extended scene from Don Carlo, “Ella giammai m’amo. . .Dormiro sol” highlighted every production, and Christoff ascends to the heights that made him a legend. For the excerpts from the 1949 Boito’s Mefistofele, Christoff’s devil has the assistance of two greats in the pit, Issay Dobrowen and Nicolai Malko.
For those who lack the entire Dobrowen production of Boris Godunov restored on Naxos Historical (8.110242-44), the six excerpts from the opera must suffice, interpolated with specific scenes led by Malko, and Karajan. Pageantry, triumph, despair, the ecstasies of pride, power, and madness, each find a sensitive portrayal in Christoff, whose diminuendos move us as much as his agonized and fevered extremes of his tessitura. Dosifey’s mournful aria from Khovantschina tears at us with its inward grief over the self-immolating Marfa, who dies for her fidelity to the old beliefs. For true sustaining power, we have the 1949 Song of the Viking Guest from Sadko, a moment of melodic menace and thrilling vocal articulation. For the laments of old age, we have Prince Gremin from Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin, naively remarking that “Everyone knows love on earth,” with the appropriately low D. Another Prince, Galitsky (1950) from Borodin’s Prince Igor, sings in Act I with a relish in revelry and the joys of life that equals the intensely sarcastic power in Varlaam’s Song in Mussorgsky. The capacity for low notes enriches the orientalisms of Khan Konschak’s aria–the rhythms rife from the Polovtsian Dances–abetted by that demonic laugh that Christoff toted without breaking musical stride.
Balalaikas, bustling strings and folk instruments open the festivities and litanies of Disc 3, with Shrove Tuesday. The same heroic swagger marks Down Peterskaya Street in an arrangement by Labinski. Here in folk music, Christoff extends his natural tradition in Fyodor Chaliapin and Konstantin Chernov with his own indomitable personality. An earthy Song of the Lumberjacks ensues, with the male chorus capturing the soughing of the forest trees. A lullaby-barcarolle, The Bandore lulls us with a resonance from Christoff reminiscent of Robeson. The inimitable sound of deep Russian bassi opens The Lonely Autumn Night, the nostalgic phrases delivered in classically balanced phrases. Christoff sings mezzo-voce and in high baritone, even more a delight when he transitions to this dark bass tones. Cantor and congregational responsorial form define Psalm 137, “By the Waters of Babylon” and “Prayer to St. Simeon, plangent with yearning spirituality. Several songs convey a deep repentance, such as Song of the Twelve Robbers and Gretchaninov’s “Hebraic” Litany. The collaboration between Christoff and Gerald Moore (1951-1952) in five songs–three of which are by Mussorgsky and contain two of his Songs and Dances of Death–transports us to the recital hall, where intimacy and poignant concentration mediate our apprehension of the agonized Russian soul. The last of the small cycle–She Mocked by Lishkin–carries something of the bitterness in Dostoievsky’s scathing Notes from Underground. Finally, Christoff and Dobrowen collaborate in 1952 in London for Song of the Volga Boatmen, the Russian equivalent to the Myth of Sisyphus or Coleridge’s line about joyless work being like collecting nectar in a sieve. This set, however, is all nectar, and you can catch it.
— Gary Lemco