Fedor Chaliapin sings “Song about a Flea” (Mussorgsky)

Written by Alexey Lavrov

Baritone

January 19, 2017

Today I’m introducing you to a recording of one of the greatest Russian opera singers, Fedor Chaliapin. He was a man of multiple talents: a gifted drawer, oil painter and sculptor; he was very good at writing, showing a lively mind, power of observation and wit. His legacy would be enough to fill several biographies. Chaliapin performed 70 bass roles, about 400 romances and songs; he played violin and cello, directed and conducted operas, starred on stage and in films; he was also the author of newspaper articles and feuilletons, a caricaturist, and a lyricist. Rachmaninoff wrote about Chaliapin, “I’m in love with Fedor like a college girl! He possesses unlimited talents in everything he puts his hands on…”.

But first and foremost Chaliapin went down into history as a phenomenal singer and actor. He was a master of transformation into his character, always being genuine. The audience adored him for that.

While enjoying Chaliapin’s performances, I keep thinking about acting abilities. What role do they play in a singer’s skills list? Especially nowadays as audience has grown more demanding and appreciative of this part of opera. I come to a conclusion that it’s a must. It can be attributed to mass popularity of movies and TV. As a spectator in an opera house I expect to believe a singer the same way I believe Meryl Streep in a movie. But as a singer I’m well aware of the other challenges an opera singer meets. For one, we don’t have a chance of a retake, all things are happening in the moment. You have to follow the conductor, to be in tune with your partners, feel at ease in your costume (which in some roles is rather uncomfortable), and, to top it all, to sing well. That’s a lot to have on your plate! But you will never win the audience unless you are an inspired, compelling actor.

This is why Chaliapin is so important to me. His records are a master class from an incomparable musician and actor. Each and every word, pause and intonation has a meaning. Nothing was left to chance. Chaliapin rehearsed a lot, and also created his own costumes and designed his own makeup. Here is his reminiscence of finding the image of Ivan the Terrible, the Russian tsar.

“I went to the Tretyakov Gallery to see the pictures of the Tsar made by Schwarz, Repin and the sculpture by Antokolsky… Somebody mentioned that Mr. Chokolov, engineer, also has also the Ivan’s portrait made by Victor Vasnetsov… The combination of the details given by Repin, Vasnetsov and Schwarz helped me compile rather look-alike makeup and figure.”

Now please listen to the recorded “ Song about a Flea” by Mussorgsky (text: Goethe, “Faust”, translation into Russian A.N. Strugovshchikov)

Once upon time there lived a King,
And a flea was always at his side.
He cared for him more than for his own brother,
A flea? Ha-ha-ha… a flea…
Ha-ha-ha-ha….The Flea!

The King once summons his tailor
And says, “You listen closely, fool:
You have to make a velvet kaftan
for my beloved friend.”
Kaftan for a flea? Ha-ha-ha!
For the flea? Ha-ha-ha! Kaftan!
Ha-ha-ha-ha! Kaftan!
For the flea! Kaftan!

With gold and velvet now
The Flea has been adorned.
And at the King’s majestic court
He is given a free hand!
Ha-ha-ha! To the Flea! Ha-ha-ha!

The King makes him the Minister,
A star is placed on his breast,
And now, watch! The crowd of fleas
Is filling the whole palace space!

And in a while the life has come
That pretty Maids of Honor,
And even her Majesty the Queen
Could no longer feel happy,
And no longer clean!

They dare not complain,
Afraid to touch the beast.
But we are not so gentle,
We crush them with a fist!
Ha-ha-ha!…

One of Chaliapin’s friends shares his impressions of this performance:
“It’s late night, quiet, everybody sleeping—and I see Chaliapin-Mefisto, but not the one in “Faust” with makeup and props he uses for this role—the different one, singing “The Flea”. He is dressed casually, his face is an ordinary one. He comes up to the piano, still animated with a friendly chat. But something alien has already penetrated into his chiseled features, and his eyes glisten with different light. He is still our Fedor who can crack a joke, but a little distant, unknown, restless and almost frightening. One more moment, an elusive move—and Chaliapin is no longer here. We see a different figure. The face is immobile and impassive, the mouth is hard and tense, but—quiet unexpectedly—a mysterious threatening smile comes on.”

We are fortunate to have a number of the great master’s records. Luckily, he liked to be recorded. Behind the recording machines he saw millions of listeners. What a great gift for future generations!

I’d like to end this post with a couple of facts to know:
– In 1940 Dmitry Shostakovich made his orchestra version of this song.
– The are two productions of “The Flea”: one with Mussorgsky’s music, the other one as “Mefisto’s song in Ourbach’s Cellar”, music by Beethoven.

Alexey Lavrov

Baritone Alexey Lavrov returns this season to the Metropolitan Opera as Schaunard in La Bohème, Silvio in Pagliacci and Malatesta in Don Pasquale. The recent graduate of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist program shone in NYFOS’ 2015 concert Letters from Spain, after which he was hailed by The New York Times for his “riveting interpretation…dramatic fervor and characterful nuance.” Come hear Alexey in NYFOS’s Pyotr the Great: The Songs of Tchaikovsky & His Circle on Jan 22 in DC and Jan 24 in NYC.

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