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Boris Christoff - Lugano Recital 1976 and interview
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)

Boris Godunov - Death of Boris
Hopak (song)
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Die Entführung aus dem Serail - Wer ein Liebchen
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)

Il barbiere di Siviglia - La callunia
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)

Don Carlo - Ella giammai m’amò
Boris Christoff (bass) (b. Plovdiv, Bulgaria 1914, d. Rome, 1993)
Orchestra della Svizzeria Italiana/Bruno Amaducci
Recorded live at the Palazzo dei Congressi, Lugano, Switzerland. 1976
Interview with Boris Christoff conducted by Giorgio Gualeriza
DYNAMIC DVD VIDEO 33476 [69:00]

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As I owned in my review of Naxos’s issue of the 1953 recording of Boris Godunov featuring Christoff in all three major bass roles, I grew up in a household where his 78s stood alongside those of Chaliapin, and were as much treasured as those of Björling, Schipa and Gigli and their soprano counterparts. For me the recording highlights of the LP 1950s were the emergence of sets of Boris, Faust and Don Carlo from HMV featuring Christoff in the lead bass roles of each. I determined that one day I would see him on the opera stage. He first appeared at London’s Covent Garden singing Boris, in Russian, in 1949. He later appeared as Philip in Visconti’s ground-breaking Don Carlos in 1958. Under Sir David Webster’s stewardship of that theatre (1944-1970) Christoff only ever sang those two roles, a fact that rankled with him. He was, however, heard in London in concert performance as Zaccaria in Nabucco. In 1973, he was at Covent Garden, as Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra which I was privileged to see. In February 1970 I first saw him as Boris at Covent Garden in the last days of Webster’s rule. Courtesy of a kind usherette, who took mercy on my restricted view seat, which cost me my fee for the day’s work in London, I saw the Coronation Scene where Boris, holding the jewels of office, descends a long staircase, from David Webster’s personal seat as he was not in the theatre that night. Christoff’s sonorous singing and histrionic portrayal of Boris blended to a perfection that made his interpretation all-involving, even consuming. It is no chance happening that on this disc his singing of The Death of Boris (Chs.11 and 12) and Philip’s soliloquy Ella giammai m’amò (Ch. 9) are so overwhelming in their impact that when closing my eyes the costume and staging are vivid in my imagination. In both these items Christoff’s secure tone, expressive nuance, exemplary diction and variety of tonal expression and phrasing bring out his clear understanding of the soul of the character so as to realize a consummate whole. His singing of Osmin’s Wer ein Liebchen from Mozart’s Die Entführung (Ch. 7) seems routine by comparison. It perhaps reflects his limited stage experience in the role whilst exhibiting his idiomatic German and lower, profundo, notes. Christoff’s La callunia (Ch. 5) is strongly sung and his voice shows no spread as he thunders out the words. However, his vocal characterisation does not erase memories of Chaliapin on his recordings.

The introductory Hopak is one that Christoff featured in recitals and appears on his collection of Mussorgsky’s songs (EMI). He sings it with brio and strong tone and it serves as an appropriate voice warmer for the stronger meat to come (Ch. 3). Applause is included after the Rossini and Christoff shakes hands with the conductor and leader as well as acknowledging the audience. There is no showing of his reaction to the enthusiastic audience response to his outstanding Death of Boris. At a London Promenade Concert concluding with the same item the audience went wild. The singer stood still and impassive for some time, eventually acknowledging the audience response with a slight inclination of the head. He was a singer who knew his place as one of the outstanding voices and singing actors of the century and was known as a difficult colleague. The Welsh bass Gwynne Howell recounts how Christoff would regularly upstage him by passing directly in front of him as he started to sing. One night Howell planted his staff well in front of himself forcing Christoff to take a different path. Later when the pair passed near the dressing rooms Christoff nodded silently as if to say ‘well done and about time!’ This egocentric facet of Christoff’s personality is largely held in check in the interview with the singer, which is interspersed between the sung items (trs. 4, 6, 8, and 10). He tries to look urbane but the intensity of his personality soon shows through. Conducted in Italian, the interviewer takes the singer through his discovery and fraught experiences in World War 2 to his rapid emergence on the international operatic stage. More interesting than those well known facts are Christoff’s analysis of his own vocal and histrionic strengths and the influence of other singers. In this latter respect he is adamant that predecessors provide an example from which one can learn but they must not be copied. Also interesting are his comments, prompted by the interviewer, in respect of the marrying of the Slav personality with the Italian operatic creativity. Christoff notes his relationship to his fellow Slav the conductor Issay Dobrowen and the influence and help of Vittoria Gui.

The camera-work during the recital is as varied as feasible in such circumstances with facial and full body shots of the singer from the front, side to include the conductor, and the rear of the orchestra. The colours in the recital are well caught whilst under the studio lights of the interview they are rather anaemic and lacking contrast and depth. The recorded sound is clear with the voice set in a well balanced perspective. The insights and performance on this disc of one of the 20th century’s greatest singer actors are well worth hearing. Although I must warn potential purchasers that the interview part of the disc, which will not bear repeated hearing, constitutes over 31 minutes of the playing time. For me Christoff’s singing, particularly his rendering of the Boris death and Philip’s soliloquy justify the issue and purchase of this DVD. Do note that the item numbers in the leaflet, 1 to 9, do not correspond with the Chapters that are as I indicate.

Robert J Farr

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