From The Metropolitan Opera Archives:

Chaliapin in New York

Although Feodor Chaliapin's first Metropolitan Opera season has been remembered as a disaster, it began in triumph. The Russian bass made his debut on November 20, 1907, in the title role of a new production of Boito's Mefistofele, with Geraldine Farrar as Margarita and Riccardo Martin as Faust.

"Chaliapin, both by necessity and intent, dominated the biggest Broadway stage as no other artist had done in these five years since [general manager Heinrich] Conried fell heir to his Caruso contract with Maurice Grau."
The New York Evening Sun
November 21, 1907

"It took the audience but a brief moment to see that an unusual artist was before them, and when his voice rang out the ear emphasized the impression of the eye."
The New York Herald.

W.J. Henderson of the New York Sun described "a big, rumbling bass, which resounds immensely in the lower register, yet becomes tractable in the upper ranges and can fine itself away into very musical head tones. In other words, Mr. Chaliapin manages his big voice with a good deal of skill, and while its natural quality makes his singing seem to lack refinement, perhaps he may be said to have paraded that condition as a striking factor in his performance." With Clotilde Bressler-Gianoli, Olive Fremstad, and Maurice Renaud regularly performing, New York was not without superb singing actors. Yet Chaliapin made a vivid impression. "He is an elemental creatures, roaring and champing like a bull, charging the poor sinners of this world with the fuss and energy of a 60 horse-power motor and leaving a trail of fire and brimstone behind him. This is the Satan resulting from the union of the Italian creator and Russian interpreter. His frame, gigantic as it is, cannot contain his nature. He writhes with the emotions that convulse him. His face is drawn into expressions of the profoundest agony.... All the dramatic action tending to establish this conception of Boito's Satan is accompanied by every helpful aid of light, scenery and mechanical ingenuity. M. Chaliapin takes the utmost pains with his make-up, which combines effectively the use of fleshlings and bare skin. The skin is covered with shiny, metallic powder with sparkles in the calcium."

His second role, Basilio in Il Barbiere di Siviglia on December 12, was an instant hit with audiences. However, few performances have divided critics more sharply.

"It remains to speak of the part of Basilio, which was assumed by Mr. Chaliapin. Singularly enough this famous Russian basso has been a member of the Metropolitan Company four weeks without singing more than one role - Mefistofele in Boito's opera. He has helped that opera to a greater popularity than it ever enjoyed here before; there was therefore much curiosity to see him in a new role. This was gratified last night, to the evident satisfaction of the audience which was much amused by his antics. It cannot be said that his Basilio is on the same high artistic level, either vocally or dramatically, as Mr. Edward de Reszke's, which was one of the things to remember a lifetime. Mr. Chaliapin's conception of the part is much coarser. He forgets that a man with such manners would hardly have been engaged by a Dr. Bartolo to give music lessons to his Rosina. But apart from this exaggeration, there is much that is amusing. His gigantic stature as compared with all the rest of the cast, was in itself a source of merriment which he utilized in many ways. His countenance lends itself to grimace, and his huge, clumsy voice completes the ensemble - an ensemble on which the audience stamped its approval with noisy applause."
The New York Evening Post,
Dec. 13, 1907

"When Chaliapin plays Basilio the opera should be named for that part, as his hypnotic, impressive personality dominated every scene. Looking like an elongated Micawber in his snuffy, short-sleeved soutaine, this wonderful comedian, for such his impersonation last night proved him, swayed his audience at will. There was infinite spontaneous humor in ever movement; every detail of gesture, by-play and make-up was inimitable; and oh, those wonderfully expressive hands! The song, 'La Calunnia' had to be repeated, so really marvellous was its interpretation. The rest of the cast was on the same plane of remarkable excellence.… What other tenor save [Alessandro] Bonci could reel off trills and roulades as in the 'Serenade' like a prima donna, and play the drunken scene with such genuine appreciation of comedy?…."
Reginald DeKoven
The New York World

"It would be interesting to know on what ground Mr. Chaliapin justifies a conception of Don Basilio which makes personal uncleanliness and vulgarity essential to his constitution. The creature as embodied in the opera is humorous because of the transparency and persistence of his craft, the exuberant cowardice, the small bullyism and the facile self-abasement of his character. But there is no sound argument in favor of making him more offensive than ridiculous. Mr. Chaliapin elaborated his conception of the part with abundant graphic skill and with deadly consistency, and he snag the music respectably - just that and no more…. Mme. [Marcella] Sembrich's Rosina is an old friend - all except the costume. That was new because the former one disappeared in the San Francisco earthquake."
The Commercial Advertiser

"Never has Mme Sembrich been more lavish with the riches and resources of her marvellous vocal art. Does the coming Tetrazzini cast a shadow before? [Following a sensational London debut in November, 1907, Luisa Tetrazzini would make her first New York appearance on January 15, 1908, as Violetta in La Traviata at Oscar Hammerstein's rival Manhattan Opera House.] From the first liquid notes of the unseen Rosina, echoing the Bonci serenade, though the sparkling ensemble of the last finale the adorable singer sang as one inspired. For the first lesson air she departed from custom by choosing the 'Bel Raggio' from Semiramide, but next it was back to her inimitable 'Voci di primavera' waltz, and after the crash of applause to the piano and Chopin's 'Maiden's Wish.' And this Rosina was acted with irresistible humor, verve, spontaneity, and distinction….
"The performance that was in open defiance of traditions, that was glaringly and recklessly unorthodox, that set at naught the accepted canons of good taste, but which justified itself by its overwhelming and all-conquering humor was the Basilio of Mr. Chaliapin. With his great natural stature increased by art to Brobdingnagian proportions, a face that had gazed on the vodka at its blackest, and a cassock that may be seen but not described, he presented a figure that might have been imagined by the English Swift or the French Rabelais. It was no voice or singing that made the audience redemand the 'Calumny Song.' It was the compelling drollery of those comedy hands.
"You may be assured, persuaded, convinced that you want your Rossini 'straight' or not at all. But when you see the Chaliapin Basilio you'll do as the rest do - roar. It is as sensational in its way as the Chaliapin Mephisto."
The New York Globe

"Departing from all conventionalities in garb and make-up, he presented a picture of an elongated friar who had grown lean by living on the fat of the land. There was a distinct glow to the nose which proved that wine was thicker than water, and although the opera was The Barber of Seville, there was evidence of his unshaven condition. A deep crimson bandana was draped about his girdle, and his giant arms were bare almost to the elbow. Then with facial movements and acting he kept the audience in laughter most of the time. He had to repeat his entrance solo, and the close of the second act was uproariously funny."
The New York Herald

"The new elements in the performance were the Don Basilio of Mr. Chaliapin and the Dr. Bartolo of Mr. [Raffaele] Barocchi. Their extraordinary contrast in size - for Mr. Barocchi is as small as Mr. Chaliapin is large - was an almost inevitable provocation of a class of stage 'business' that has long been familiar in comic opera and vaudeville. But Mr. Chaliapin's Don Basilio had other strange features besides that of size. We have had solemn, and sleek, and ponderous, and pontifical Don Basilios; but not such an uncouth, unkempt, greasy, familiar person, so little mindful of his cloth, so little familiar with the manners and customs of polite society that his employment as a music master in a good family is scarcely conceivable. He makes an eccentric and grotesque character study of the part. Many of his doings and gestures are amusing; but it would be well for him to learn that some others of them are not acceptable to the real public of the Metropolitan Opera House. He was much applauded by the demonstrative portion of the audience, and was made to repeat the whole of his entrance scene."
The New York Times

"That Feodor Chaliapin's frankly 'low comedy' treatment of the servile music master, Don Basilio, in The Barber of Seville, might cause others than Dr. Bartolo in the play to disagree with that highly original, that individually lofty, that vast, amorphous, crag-like counterpart of The Tramp of his friend, Maxim Gorky, is made plain enough by his astonished critics to-day. He was made up as a grimy, greasy caricature, his powerful hands and arms pawed the air to get free of his cloth, and the creature's greed and cunning were written large as 'scare headlines,' so to speak, all over the face, from his false chin and painted nose to the raised and distorted crown of a half-hairless wig. All that is admitted freely. But the fact remains that from his first gigantic entrance in the 'Calumny' aria, which had to be repeated, the big, rough Russian bass made his every point a telling one with the house. Only the time-honoured reentrance in the 'Good night' ensemble fell flat, because the laughing audience had exhausted its applause just before…."
The New York Evening Sun

"The presence of Signor Bonci in Mr. Conried's company raised last night's representation of Il Barbiere di Siviglia to a higher power musically than it has illustrated for many years; the presence of Mr. Chaliapin heightened with dubious propriety the comedy on its farcical side. His Don Basilio amused the public and he evoked laughter and even applause where he should have created disgust by his appearance and conduct. There was nothing necessarily discordant with the character of a singing teacher in his gigantic stature, nor offensive in the grotesque comedy which the contrast in size between him and a singularly diminutive Dr. Bartolo (Signor Barocchi) invited. But in appearance and behavior he was a repulsive caricature, blear eyed, besotten and reeky with snuff. Rossini's comedy needs no vulgarity of the kind which Mr. Chaliapin appears to delight in to hold the admiration of our operatic public. Singing comedians, like Mme. Sembrich, Signor Bonci and Signor [Giuseppe] Campanari, can do that."
H.E. Krehbiel
The New York Daily Tribune

"In makeup alone Chaliapin was laughable. With his great height accentuated by the black priestlike garb affected formerly by teachers of music, he towered above the other singers as if he were on stilts. It was impossible to glance without laughing at his face, with its red-tinted nose, a mouth wide agrin and a monstrous projecting chin. The eyes of the audience were drawn irresistibly toward him whenever he was on the stage, and almost every one of his actions was accompanied by guffaws of laughter. His singing, perhaps, a less essential part of his interpretation, also was a finely studied bit of humorous work. So great was the applause after he had given the 'Calumny' song, in the scene with Dr. Bartolo, that he was compelled to repeat it….
"Campanari was greeted enthusiastically as an old favorite…. He revealed once more an impersonation of the barber that musically has not been equaled in New York. His command of coloratura bore comparison well with that of Sembrich and Bonci. Indeed, it would be difficult to find three voices better suited to one another in quality and character than these three."
The New York Press

"Mr. Chaliapin, the elongated Russian basso, repeated his broad travesty on the role of Don Basilio. He spared the audience nothing. He sang the 'Calumnia' aria quite as badly as he did at the first performance and was cheered to the echo by the gallery and the railbirds. He blew his nose with his fingers and evoked laughter from stalls and boxes. Neither Lew Fields nor Joe Weber had yet thought of this style of comedy. However, it was said many years ago 'De gustibus non est disputandum,' and later 'Chacun a son gout.' If that is the sort of thing Metropolitan Opera House audiences like they must be permitted to do so."
W. J. Henderson
The New York Sun

December 17, 1907
(after the second performance)

In addition to Mefistofele and Barbiere, Chaliapin's first season included Mephistophélès in Faust and Leporello in Don Giovanni (which he learned in a few days). Because of his controversial reception, he sailed back to Europe vowing never to return. Weeks later, New York was still reeling.

"Everyone knows the labored, artificial sounds of a claque, and a sickening noise it is. But as one star differeth from another in brightness, so one claque differeth from another in offensiveness. The one that followed the fortunes of M. Chaliapin was the most tremendous of all. It consisted largely, it would appear, of Tartars, East Side factory hands, escaped Cossacks and anarchists, whose voice had the tang and metallism of a diet of old rejected caviare cans. Some four hundred of these led an attack upon the Metropolitan every night that Chaliapin sang. Every night of his they made opera almost impossible with their awful din. Their particular style and method were to shout 'Shawlyawpin' and then make a noise like an Atlantic traveler in direst distress."
Algernon St. John-Brenon
The New York Telegraph
March 7, 1908



Chaliapin in a New York portrait from 1907.
Photo: Aimé Dupont

 

Chaliapin as Mefistofele, the role of his Met debut, as seen by Giuseppe Viafora in The New York Times.

 

Chaliapin as he appeared in Boito's Mefistofele about the time of his Met debut in the role in 1907.

 

An early Russian portrait of Chaliapin as Don Basilio, 1913.

 

Bonci's Almaviva and Chaliapin's Basilio, as drawn by Enrico Caruso.

 

Chaliapin as Don Basilio
during the 1920s.

 

Chaliapin as Don Basilio at La Scala in 1933.
Photo: M. Camuzzi and Crimella, Milan

 

Marcella Sembrich, the Met's first Rosina, still drew glowing notices in 1907, 24 years after her debut.
Photo: Erwin Raupp

 



Giuseppe Campanari as Figaro.
Photo: Aimé Dupont

 

Alessandro Bonci
Photo: Aimé Dupont