site.btaBoris Christoff: The Basso

Boris Christoff: The Basso
Boris Christoff: The Basso
Boris Christoff in 1978 (BTA Archive)

Boris Christoff (May 18, 1914 – June 28, 1993) is widely considered to be one of the greatest basses of the 20th century.

He was born in Plovdiv, South Central Bulgaria, on May 18, 1914. His family origins can be traced back to the Macedonian town of Bitola. His father and brother were active with the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization.

There was a strong musical tradition in Christoff’s family. His father, Kiril Christov, was a popular chanter in Resen, while his elder brother Nikolai was considered the singer of the family. Despite Nikolai’s talent, he chose a career in law. The same fate was in store for Boris, as he got a law degree from Sofia University in 1938 and became a magistrate.

In 1933, he was admitted to the Gusla Choir. He performed with the Academic Choir and with the choir of the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. His fellow performers at the Gusla Choir promoted Boris to the Ministry of Education for a scholarship for his studies in Italy.

On January 19, 1942, Christoff was in the choir singing in front of the palace chapel, when King Boris III entered the hall and heard his voice. The monarch learned that Christoff was working as a judge in Pazardzhik, which prompted him to comment that even though judges were important, there were plenty of them, while good singers were few and far between. In April, the Education Ministry awarded Chrisoff a scholarship for a one-year study in Italy. He was tutored for two years by the great baritone Riccardo Stracciari.

The singer did not escape from World War II unscathed, as his refusal to join a military corps of Bulgarians to fight on the side of Germany in 1944 had him arrested and sent to camp. He was released by French troops in May 1945.

Christoff returned to Italy in December 1945. In a letter to a friend he confessed that he barely survived the past two years in Germany and Austria. He wrote that his inadequate grant had him starving and added: “Today, my dinner at the Vatican cafeteria was some kind of soup and an egg with 50 grams of bread…”

On March 12, 1946, Christoff made his operatic debut as Colline in La Boheme at Reggio Calabria, which was met with numerous encores. This was the beginning of a brilliant career the included performances in Milan's La Scala, the Rome Opera, Covent Garden in London, the opera theatres in Naples, Barcelona, Lisbon, Edinburgh, Chicago, Vienna, Rio de Janeiro, among others. In 1960, his part in Don Carlos as Philip II prompted one critic to write that the opera should have been named Philip II with Boris Christoff in this role.

While Christoff’s name made waves around the world, his relations with Bulgaria rapidly deteriorated. To start with, the communist regime did not renew his Bulgarian passport, which created obstacles for his musical career. He was invited to a 3-month tour in Spain with some of the biggest Italian singers at the time, including Beniamino Gili and Mafalda Favero, but he could not participate due to the lack of a passport. He strongly disapproved of the regime and decided not to come back to Bulgaria, as he was confident he would never be allowed to leave the country again. This decision had him blacklisted by the Communist Party.

In the 1950s, Chrisoff’s brother Nikolai was diagnosed with cancer. Chrisoff pleaded with the communists to allow Nikolai to travel to Italy to be treated by Italian surgeons but to no avail. Nikolai died in 1954, but Chrisoff was denied entry visa to Bulgaria for his funeral.

In the 70’s, Christoff's relations with Bulgarian authorities gradually warmed up. In October 1976, he recorded chants in Sofia’s St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which were released as a gramophone record the following year.

In 1978, he recorded another piece at the same church - the first part of the Liturgy Domestica by Alexander Grechaninov. This is the first record ever made of Liturgy Domestica.

Even after he was awarded the title of People's Artist in 1977 and the Order of the People's Republic of Bulgaria I Class in 1984, he was never allowed to sing on the Bulgarian stage. His biographer Nino Lukanov recalls that in a moment of frustration Christoff uttered: “All of the world acknowledges me yet ‘our people’ do not!”

Christoff’s performances and concert activity continued throughout the 80s. Francois Lafon noted in 1984: "Already at 70, Boris Christoff continues to sing, his voice is almost unchanged. His recent Parisian recitals were triumphant.”

As an artist he was unique in several ways. Firstly, because of his rich voice with a distinctive dark tone. His stage presence and dramatic temperament added to the effect of the music in a specific, almost movie-like way. Christoff was always lauded for the authority of his acting as well as for the magnificence of his voice.

He possessed an unusually large cultural scope. Musical historian Mauricio Modugno noted that he was fluent in six languages and sang in them. For the purpose of creating artistic characters, he conducted in-depth studies of the respective era, event, personality.

He was a cultural forerunner, anticipating developments and tendencies. To quote Prof. Bruno Cagli, President of Santa Cecillia Academy: “At that time he was The Basso. The most perfect basso for all of us. (…) We had used to listen to Russian operas in an unnatural way. He insisted in singing in the original language – thus he preserved the unique quality of the Russian and Italian operas. (…) He was ahead of his time. Today no one would even think of translating the operas…”

He brought his career to an end with a final concert at the Accademia di Bulgaria in Rome on June 22, 1986. After he died in Rome in 1993, his body was returned to Bulgaria. It was lay in repose in St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia. At the time only King Boris III and Patriarch Cyril of Bulgaria were honoured in such a way. Later he was buried in the Central Sofia Cemetery.

***

Most Bulgarians recognize Christoff's voice as the voice that blesses Bulgaria in the first minutes of the New Year, every year: singing the Orthodox Chant by Dmitri Bortniansky Mnogaya Leta (Grant, Oh Lord, Many Years). It is Boris Christoff’s voice that makes a wish for prosperity and health, "the voice that prays to God for Bulgaria".

/NZ/

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By 16:12 on 22.06.2024 Today`s news

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