Chaliapin, The Enchanter – memories of the Great Russian Bass
A Film by Elisabeth Kapnist
Production and coordination by Eric Dietlin; Associate Producer Philippe Bernard
Picture Format 4:3 full screen Colour Colour and B&W; Region Code 2, 3, 4, and 5; Linear-PCM stereo: Subtitles Russian narration subtitled in English.
WARNER DVD 50 51865 211525 [58:00]
Throughout eight chapters, this hour long DVD documentary follows the life of the great Chaliapin from provincial beginnings to world stardom, from the small roles to his filmed interpretations.
The chapter headings are, naturally, a compelling index of his dizzying ascent, both as a singer of the utmost distinction but also as a singer-actor of increasingly potent psychological penetration. It’s this aspect of his stagecraft that should prove especially compelling, given his reputation as an often grossly exaggerated presence on stage. The reasons for his exploration of this vital, modernistic component are well detailed in Elisabeth Kapnist’s film, though obviously there were frequent criticisms of his histrionic impersonations in opera, notably his Méphistophélès and Don Quixote, two of his most powerful and famous impersonations. But for all the criticism, the fervour of the performances could never be doubted.
The biographical approach is effected here by means of linking passages from Chaliapin’s published autobiography, read in Russian, with subtitles. The commentary (female) rightly stresses the importance of Usatiov as singing teacher and also, crucial to his stage development, the actor Melmont Daisky. Later still both Stanislavski and Mamontov proved invaluable: the former’s influence was not only important for stage and film actors, let it not be forgotten. Other titans and totems make appearances as direct influences, or colleagues or both; Rachmaninoff and Maxim Gorky are two of the most notable. Cities are also part of the Chaliapin legend. He triumphed in New York and London, though it was impossible for him to return to Russia after the Revolution. But Paris was the city most identified with him in exile, and where he died. Shots of the funeral are here. There are also recorded examples of his singing, naturally. One of his daughters is interviewed, very charmingly, in French. There is some film footage. One such shows the bass with Gorky, whilst there is also some silent footage of him, and an extract from Pabst’s 1934 film of Don Quixote.
Some film biographies of this kind feel skimpy, leaving one with that old Chinese meal syndrome; too many noodles, not enough meat. This one however offers insights and a thoughtful approach to its subject matter.
Jonathan Woolf

Insights and a thoughtful approach ... see Full Review