Books

Tsar Feodor: Chaliapin in America

spacer By Joseph Darsky. Edited by Elena Svitavsky
Nova Publishers; 336 pp. $126

Books Tsar Feodor cover 1212

Iconic Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin (1873–1938) was one of the seminal singing actors of the twentieth century. His unconstrained acting style, vivid declamatory skills and remarkable vocal capabilities redefined the art form. His example set the standard and traditions for several operatic roles, proving an indelible influence on the work of Boris Christoff, Miroslav Čangalović, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni and Nicolai Ghiaurov.

In North America, Chaliapin's gifts were welcomed by other rule-breakers, such as Geraldine Farrar and Mary Garden (who awarded him a munificent Chicago contract). But famously, his initial 1907–08 Met appearances as Leporello, the devils of Gounod and Boito and his broad, raunchy version of Rossini's Basilio led to outraged critical drubbings. He sailed back to Europe intending never to return. History and chance dictated otherwise. Chaliapin's ultimately extensive American activity in opera, recital and concert are the subject of Joseph Darsky's welcome if nonpareil book. An amateur in the true sense — professionally an industrial chemist — Darsky offers up a labor of love but also of considerable research and indubitable learning about Chaliapin and both the facts and the impact of his career. He has combed tirelessly through provincial (Russians would say) archives and has clearly spent decades sifting contrasting accounts of events from Chaliapin's colleagues, fans and family members. When the bass returned to the Met (1921–29), he added Boris, Filippo and Don Quichotte, with additional work in Chicago and Washington companies and countless recital tours. Darsky provides chapter-by-chapter accounts of each season's events with background from multiple sources. 

But what starts as narrative charm here takes on a Nabokovian aspect — never as sinister or unhinged as Pale Fire's Charles Kinbote, more like Lolita's pedantic, self-promoting John Ray, Jr. The author's frequent footnotes explaining allusive jokes, inapposite observations on politics (birtherism, global warming) and constant digs at and rarer praise for other writers on Chaliapin all distract from the genuine worth of his project. Darsky was unwise to deploy "(sic)" satirically so often at what he perceives as others' misspellings when his own volume is so perplexingly rife with them. Indeed, this book yields zero indication of copyediting. Errors crop up throughout — allusions to "Charlton" (rather than "Charles") Hackett, "Eams," "Gadsky," and on ad infinitum. Darsky bemoans, in relation to his hero and Maria Jeritza, that "there are no records of their performances together at the Metropolitan"; hardly surprising, since they never performed together there. All the hallmarks of cultured Russian "émigré speak" are present in the translation by Darsky's daughter Elena Svitavsky.

Darsky's volume contains several apparatuses of considerable potential use to future scholars — invaluable chronologies of Chaliapin's North and South American sojourns and performances, a list of North American interviews, and a "Personalia" section that's helpful but riddled with errors. There is much here that is fascinating and enjoyable — but scholars should cite with caution! spacer 

DAVID SHENGOLD

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Current Issue: April 2014 — VOL. 78, NO. 10