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Lives of Two Operatic Giants : THE GREAT CARUSO by Michael Scott (A Borzoi Book/Alfred A. Knopf: $24.95; 322 pp., illustrated; 0-394-53681-9) : CHALIAPIN A Critical Biography by Victor Borovsky (A Borzoi Book/Alfred A. Knopf: $45; 620 pp., illustrated; 0-394-56096-5)

September 18, 1988|Walter Price | Price writes frequently on the arts and is currently at work on a biography of the American baritone, Leonard Warren

Most critics and operatic aficionados would agree that among the most important performers of the 20th Century, the names of Enrico Caruso and Fedor Chaliapin stand out. They changed the history of opera in the way we perceive this often frustrating and thoroughly wonderful art form.

Neither has wanted for biographical treatment, much of it claptrap. Therefore, the appearance of two new works is cause for considerable anticipation.

The Caruso book, unfortunately, is a major disappointment. It falls into the category of an "And then he sang . . . " piece. Little attempt is made to bring us Caruso the Man or Artist. His courtship and marriage to Dorothy Benjamin is explored in detail, but little new is here regarding his relationship with the soprano, Ada Giachetti, who bore him two sons.

The book's most serious failing, however, is not coming to grips with Caruso artistically. We have his records, of course, but we are given nothing of his artistic philosophy, if indeed he had one.

Instead, paragraph after paragraph informs us that he sang "Ideale" or "Una furtiva lagrima" for the umpteenth time at one or another concert or that "La Boheme" was followed at the Met or at Covent Garden or Paris by "Tosca" or "Aida."

Included in the book is a most useful chronology of all of Caruso's performances by Thomas G. Kaufman, as well as a discography by Dr. John R. Bolig.

Another matter entirely is Victor Borovsky's splendid biography of Fedor Chaliapin. The author's achievement is all the more impressive when one realizes that English is not his native language. He writes with a flair and style quite extraordinary. Above all, he is successful in capturing the essence of the artist.

We are introduced to a peasant born into poverty, beaten by a drunken father, often hungry, but from an early age attracted to the theater. After work as an "extra" in theater groups and amateur choruses, with only one year of formal vocal study, he made his debut at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg at age 22 in 1895 (the same year as Caruso's debut in Naples).

Nervy from the beginning, the bass chose after only a year to leave the greatest of the Imperial theatres, when the roles he received and his contract were not to his liking. Rudolf Bing would have thought he was in heaven had he been able to issue such contracts. The individual singer had hardly any rights at all.

Although he was slow to articulate his tenets, being merely a singer was never enough for Chaliapin. He wanted total theater, a combination of acting and singing which were inseparable. In shaping his characterizations, he was greatly influenced by painters. His own gift for drawing (Caruso had it also) helped him in planning his makeup and costuming.

Borovsky brings out the generally not well-known fact that Chaliapin almost single-handedly made the music of Moussorgsky both respectable and popular. Previously it had been thought crude and unperformable. "Boris Godunov" and "Khovanshchina" were not even in the repertories of the Imperial theatres.

The author by no means attempts to whitewash his subject. He shows us a man of ungovernable temper who thought nothing of dictating to his colleagues. Like most singers, he could be jealous of attention paid to others (such as the Polish bass Adamo Didur).

Chaliapin suffered one of the few disasters of his career at his American debut in 1907, when his naturalistic acting (he sang "Mefistofele" with bare arms and chest) was not to most critics' tastes. He did not return to this country until 1921, and he scathingly referred to Americans as "scum." The opinion was later revised.

If this book has any drawback, it is that many of the Chaliapin roles analyzed are from operas unfamiliar to most Americans, such as Ivan the Terrible in Rimsky-Korsakov's "Maid of Pskov" and Salieri in the same composer's "Mozart and Salieri."

Also, the author has little interest in his subject's private life. We are not even sure which children came from which marriage. Chaliapin's fascinating relationship with Maxim Gorky is left largely unexplored.

But these are minor matters. The book has been lavishly illustrated and a discography by Alan Kelly and Vladimir Gurvich is included. Borovsky's work will be definitive for years to come. Bravo!

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