Wednesday, June 23, 2010

From the shelves of the Paco library

Paul Horgan, a novelist and historian of the American west, moved in some very diverse artistic circles, and recorded many of his encounters and impressions in Tracings: A Book of Partial Portraits. Greta Garbo, T.S. Elliot, Thorton Wilder and Igor Stravinsky (among others) make appearances in this volume, and Horgan provides unique insights into their achievements, personalities and (sometimes hilarious) foibles.

I am not a tremendous fan of the opera, but Horgan’s description of a performance by the great Russian opera singer Feodor Chaliapin is an enthralling account, not only of the man’s genius, but of his status as an outstanding specimen of that stereotypical figure, the temperamental artist. The occasion that gave Horgan an opportunity to see the genius at work was a 1924 performance of Gounod’s Faust at the Eastman Theatre in Rochester New York (under the aegis of the Metropolitan Opera Company). Here, Horgan describes one particularly memorable scene:
And now comes an act of theatrical genius that surpasses every other moment of the performance in dramatic power. Attacked by the prayer exalting Heaven, Méphistophélès [Chaliapin] falls away from the kneeling figure of Marguérite. He whips forth his long rapier. With its point he catches the hem of his cloak. Raising it in a swift upward spiral, he shrouds his face and figure with the cloak. He takes it high, higher, until a pillar of black is erect in stillness more terrible than all the ceaseless motion of evil in its earlier presence. We gasp.

Even as we are transfixed by the power of the symbol, we have to think of the mastery with which the artist managed his props in one long movement until the frozen pinnacle is achieved. How does he know just where to pick the edge of the cloak with his rapier so that in raising the heavy fabric it will not slip, come loose, and ruin the effect? How can he contrive to seem a tall as a church spire in his stark quiet? Scarcely a minute of time, this transformation, yet it seems an eternity.
Ah, but Chaliapin had a train to catch, and, worried that he would miss it, he raced through the final act.
But Chaliapin, having uttered his last contractual note - Jugée!” -leaves Faust to his own fate, charges angrily down to the footlights and with giant steps strides off in full sight.

As he goes, we see him tear away his mustaches and beard and throw them into the orchestra pit. He pulls off his tight black skullcap with its sinister feather and casts it into footlights. He unbuckles his rapier until it clatters along on the floor. He rips open his doublet and unclasps his cloak and rolls it up into what might be a bundle of laundry. Having destroyed the character of Méphistophélès and the crowning illusion in full view of the dismayed audience, Chaliapin disappears into the wings on his escape to the railroad station. Mr. Johnson, obedient to the final strains of the opera, can only depart for l’enfer by himself.
Tracings is a marvelous distillation of some of the author’s most interesting experiences with many of the greats of cinema, music, literature and even religion (he describes his almost miraculous success in persuading the Vatican – i.e., Pope John XXIII - to waive the “100-year proviso”, a rule prohibiting public access to archival materials less than a hundred years old), written with zest and deep understanding. A real biographical page-turner.

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