In this music edition we feature the great Bulgarian basso Boris Christoff.
His exceptional voice sounds traditionally in the very first minute of each New Year with the Many Years Prayer (known in Church Slavonic as Mnogaya Leta) - a blessing to the Bulgarian people. He never sang on the Bulgarian stage, but left Bulgarians his legacy of remarkable performances of emblematic Orthodox church chants. These valuable recordings were made in the Alexander Nevski Cathedral in Sofia where in the 1930s he sang in the choir. As you have perhaps already guessed, we are talking about Boris Christoff. Who was the man and the artist and how did his remarkable life and musical career evolve?
Let’s first listen to him singing before we tell you more – another Orthodox chant – We Sing to Thee, the most sacred part of the Liturgy in Orthodox Churches, the recording was made, as we said, in the 1930s in the Alexander Nevski Cathedral.
Born in Plovdiv (Bulgaria’s second biggest city) and raised in the capital Sofia, Boris Christoff was very fond of singing since his early adolescent years but yet enrolled at Sofia University to study law. At the same time, he became the soloist of the Gusla male choir.
In the early years of World War II, he served in the army as a cavalryman and sang regularly in military concerts. He even gave a recital in the Bulgaria hall. Apparently, his musical talent made quite an impression on the audience because the royal family granted him a scholarship and on his birthday, May 18, 1942, with the blessing of his family, he went to Italy. He began to study singing with the famous baritone Ricardo Strachiari. He worked hard for two years, mastering basic bass parts in the Italian repertoire. In 1944 and 1945, he lived in Austria where he participated in concerts and radio recordings.
When the WWII ended and life started going back to normal, Boris Christoff was again in Rome where he was involved in important concerts in the Santa Cecilia Academy. He admitted this was the real beginning of his career. His debut on the opera stage was in the theater in Reggio Calabria, singing the part of Colinne from La Boheme of Puccini. His performance of the famous aria Vecchia Zimarra (Old Coat) was met with the ecstatic applause of the audience and critics were enthusiastic.
Next followed his interpretations of the roles of Pimen and Tsar Boris from Mussorgsky’s epic opera Boris Godunov, of Dosifey from Khovanshchina of Mussorgsky again, King Marke in Tristan and Isolde, Hagen in Twilight of the Gods of Richard Wagner, Orovezo from Bellini’s Norma, Caspar from the Freeshooter by Carl Maria von Weber, Henry from Wagner’s Lohengrin, Fiesco from Verdi’s Simone Boccanegra, Rocco from Beethoven’s Fidelio - at Milan’s La Scala and others. In three seasons alone, Boris Christoff turned into a popular, sought-after singer with a diverse repertoire, he made numerous recordings and participated in concert performances of operas. He often sang the bass parts in Handel’s oratorios "The Messiah," "Samson," "Judas Maccabeus ", "The Creation" by Haydn, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony...
In those early years, Boris Christoff worked hard to master and improved his voice, his acting and dramatic skills, and his overall musical talent. Feeling drawn to Slavic music and the works of Slavic composers, the singer penetrated deep into the profound layers of the spirituality, philosophy and psychology of the great Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky. He passionately studied and collected editions and autographs by the composer, including his collection of songs. And already in the next two decades - the 1950s and 1960s he became the undisputed master performer of Russian classical music.
In the mid-20th century, Boris Christoff was the master of the opera stages – a bass compared only to Shalyapin, the Russian singer who initiated the era of the great basses who, until then, remained in the shadow of tenors and sopranos. In these decades, Boris Christoff reached the highest peaks in his singing and acting talent. Universally recognized and preferred by all the major opera houses on two continents - Europe and America - he sang with great success in La Scala, Grand Opera in Paris, the Royal Opera House "Covent Garden" in London, and the Vienna Opera. He performed many times in Rio de Janeiro, Chicago’s Lyric Opera, in San Francisco and Washington, he gave concerts and took part in the most prestigious international festivals of the time.
And everywhere, the music critics always praised highly the richness of his voice, his impeccable vocal skills, the power and breadth of his expressive colorful timbre. An imposing figure, huge charisma, captivating voice, impeccable diction and dramatic impersonation of the character - this is the most succinct description of this singer. Many of his roles remain, to this day, unsurpassed examples in terms of dramatic interpretation and full vocal, musical and artistic expression. Among them Boris Godunov, Philip II of Don Carlos, Mephistopheles in Faust of Gounod and Mephistopheles of Arrigo Boito, Giovanni da Procida from La Forza Del Destino (The Force of Destiny) and others.
Boris Christoff lived in Italy until his death in 2003 at the age of 79. He bequeathed to his native country an exquisite villa in Rome, where in the last years of his life, he was teaching young Bulgarian singers. Today it functions as the Boris Christoff Academy. His father's house in Sofia has been turned into a Museum House with a concert hall inside. Until the end of his life, the singer was an example of a great patriot although he was repeatedly humiliated and abused by the Communist government, which also created an artificial antagonism between him and the other famous Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov.
Boris Christoff left the memory of a true humanist, an artist of uncompromising principles, dedicated to his dying breath to the music of the opera stage. For generations of music lovers he left his unique musical legacy of recorded performances - his spiritual messages expressed in a voice whose power elevates the soul and penetrates deep into the hearts of people.
English version Rossitsa Petcova