Sunday, 26 January 2014

Chaliapin Ivan the Terrible rare screening

Feodor Chaliapin, the legendary bass in a silent movie? That's no contradiction in terms, because Chaliapin is a brilliant actor in the grand manner, even when he doesn't sing. The film "Ivan the Tterrible (1915) receives a rare screening on 30 January at the Pushkin House in Bloomsbury Square, London. The restored version was originally seen in Moscow in 2001, but this version has new English subtitles, specially created by film and music historian Paul Fryer.

The film is well worth seeing because it's the closest we can get to early opera performance practice. Obviously, no sound. Nor is it a "filmed opera" like the DVDs we get today. Instead, it's an attempt to reproduce on silent film something of the operatic experience. The title "Ivan the Terrible" is a bit of a misnomer, since the film was based on Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's The Maid of Pskov. "Ivan the Terrible" is better box office. Besides Ivan was one of Chaliapin's signature roles: his presence was the draw. Indeed, the idea for the film came from his supporters, who understood how the power of cinema could preserve performance and bring opera to new audiences.  Nowadays it is fashionable to sneer at "crossover" musicians, but until only very recently, many crossed genre. There's lots on this site on Richard Tauber's adventures in cinema, and on music for film by serious composers like Hans Eisler.

Ivan the Terrible folows the plot of The Maid of Pskov so faithfully that it can be watched withoiut sound or subtitles, as long as you're familiar with the opera. Princess Olga of Pskov is in her garden, hearing lurid tales of Ivan's destruction of Novgorod.  The staging is very art nouveau, sculpted lines with a "river" of shining white light in the background. It looks as if it's painted backdrop. Scenes are shot on diagonal horizons, to create a contrast of dark and light. Even the scenes shot in the open air are stylized rather than naturalistic. The acting is similar, designed perhaps to semaphore meaning to audiences up in the galleries of a theatre. In silent film, actors also need to ham because the medium was so restricted.  Cinematographers hadn't quite mastered verité or the art of close-up.

Chaliapin  really had presence. In still photos, we don't realize just how tall he was and how he must have dominated the stage. Later, Chaliapin appears in a coat of armour with a peaked helmet which makes him look like a giant. He beats up Matuta who has captured Olga, and takes her with him to his camp. He has a secret.  He won't hurt Olga. though he rages theatrically on his throne. The battle is a nice crowd scene, shot economically on the same small set/area by the "river" from different angles. In the confusion, Olga is killed. Her lover, Tucha, a stock Romantic hero in breeches, falls over her body weeping, then scrambles down tyhe same steep slope most of the other characters have slid down before him, and drowns in the river. Chaliapin, maddened by grief, wanders down a diagonal path, and wails over a locket, revealing that he was the lover of Olga's mother, and is her father.  Ivan's not terrible, at all.

Please see here for a complete download and review of Chaliapin in the 1933 film Don Quixote with music by Jacques Ibert and Maurice Ravel. Chalapin sings in that, gloriously parodying his stage persona. If I have time I'll write about Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan the terrible, with music by Sergei Prokofiev. In the meantime, a full download of Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky, another Eisenstein movie, from 1937.

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