Boris Christoff (1914-93) was one of the greatest dramatic basses since the start of the recording age. His unique sound and searing intensity brooks only one comparison – to Feodor Chaliapin. Christoff sang at all of the world’s great opera houses, save one. The Bulgarian bass was engaged by Rudolf Bing to sing King Philip II in Verdi’s Don Carlo on opening night of the 1950 season, Bing’s first at the Met. Unfortunately for New York opera goers Christoff was denied a US visa because of the anti-communist provisions of the McCarran Act. Ironically, he was strongly against the communist government of his native country. Though he subsequently was given a visa and sang in Chicago and San Francisco, he never appeared at the Met. His absence from that august company is still palpable. Christoff was replaced in the Met’s new production of Don Carlo by Cesare Siepi who made his Met debut in the opera. A pretty good save by Bing and the Met, but Christoff was unique and really couldn’t be replaced.
By most accounts, Christoff was a difficult colleague. The intensity of his art is the sort that requires such inner concentration that sensitive personal interaction is difficult. Regardless, he was an operatic giant. I remember his appearance on American network TV in the mid fifties as Boris. Much of the country was mesmerized. Such an appearance on American TV today is inconceivable.
Christoff’s core repertory mostly consisted of the great Russian and Verdi roles. He also sang both Gounod’s and Boito’s devils. His portrayal of Boris Godunov was definitive. He was one of the great singing actors of the 20th century. His ability to convey emotional meaning to every syllable and word puts him in the same league with Callas, Di Stefano, and Sinatra. His piano singing was unique among basses.
I’ll start with two excerpts from Boris. I’ll use the English translations of the Russian as my Cyrillic is nonexistent. I have attained the Highest Power is from Act 2. The Death of Boris occurs in the first scene of Act 4. You don’t have to know Russian or even the story of Boris to get the emotional content from Christoff’s portrayal. Prince Galitsky’s aria is from the first scene of Borodin’s Prince Igor. The dissolute prince brags about his pleasure filled life. Prince Gremin’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin gives us a much more serious prince. In it Gremin describes his love for Tatania who had earlier been rejected by Onegin. Gremin is unaware of this aborted relationship. The contrast between the two noblemen is both in the music and in Christoff’s realization of the two numbers. The Song of the Viking Merchant appears in scene 4 of Rimsky-Korsakov’s 7 scene opera Sadko. The merchant is singing of his homeland.
As I mentioned above, Verdi was central Christoff’s career. Here’s what New York missed because of Cold War shenanigans. Ella gemmai m’amo starts the scene in the king’s apartment in Verdi’s Don Carlo – one of opera’s supreme achievements. Boris Godunov and King Philip are, in my opinion, the two greatest dramatic bass roles in opera. The next recording includes the poignant musical introduction to the aria. Infelice!… e tu credevi… che mai vegg’io! is sung by Silva when he catches his unwilling fiance with not one, but two men in her boudoir. He pretty torn up about his situation. He should have known better; he’s about three times her age. Il lacerato spirito is from the prologue to Simon Boccanegra. Fiesco is tormented with grief over the death of his daughter who has had a child by Boccanegra. He swears vengeance. As is well known, Verdi had a attachment to father daughter relationships. Boccanegra has two such pairs, though one daughter is dead at the opera’s start. O tu Palermo from O Vespri Siciliani is Procida’s apostrophe to his native land and city.
One of the joys of being a bass is getting to be the devil. Christoff played both Boito’s and Gounod’s Mephisto. Ave Signor is from the former’s Mefistofele. Le veau d’or, of course, is from Gounod’s Faust. Here’s The Church Scene from that opera. The soprano is Victoria de los Angeles. It’s from the superb recording of the complete opera made more than 60 years ago. The very young Nicolai Gedda sang the title role. This scene is probably the most compelling piece of dramatic writing ever produced by Gounod. Christoff is both a suave and frightening ruler of the Underworld.
Finally, two arias in a lighter vein. Every serious bass love to sing Don Basilio in Rossini’s Barber. The main reasons are you get to mug a lot and La Calunnia. Christoff’s voice was too dark and deep to sing the title role in Don Giovanni, but Leporello was just right for him – Catalog Aria.
It will be a long time before we see his like again. Fortunately, he left a very large recorded legacy among which are hundreds of songs – a genre I have not covered in this article.