We went to see the house/museum of Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin the other day, which was both interesting and, well – first things first. I am living proof that you can listen to a lot of opera without running across Chaliapin. He was known mostly for the big Russian operas, and his career ran from around 1900 into the 1930s. There are plenty of recordings (if you sit down in the last room of the museum, they play some of them for you) but they are old recordings, with all the virtues and limitations thereof.
The museum gives you a glimpse, but not much, into the opera world of the early 1900s. I was amused by the little section about Chaliapin performing Don Basilio in Il Barbiere at the Met and shocking the audience there with his portrayal of the character as a nasty, dirty rather gross Spanish priest – he noted that American priests were, as he observed, clean and professional, but this was not the case in Spain. Other highlights: Chaliapin was trying to figure out the costume/look for a character, and he painted his idea in stage face paint on the wall of his dressing room at the Mariinsky – the painting is still extant.
But the place this little museum reminded me most of was a certain style of American civil war museum, like the one in Charleston, South Carolina. It’s less museum than reliquary – in the case of the Civil War one in Charleston, you can see the socks of various confederate generals (I kid you not) as well as little rosettes woven by southern ladies from the palm fronds (SC is the Palmetto State) that decorated the room at the convention at which South Carolina seceded from the Union. In the case of the Chaliapin museum, you can see not only photographs and costumes and all that but also a lock of his hair, his ashtray, his nightgown, and three little chestnuts from the tree that overhung his grave in Paris before they removed his body to Russia decades later. (S to me, on inspecting the nightgown: “Do you think that a hundred years from now they’ll be exhibiting Anna Netrebko’s pajamas?” My sense is that probably not. One, the ways in which opera fandom is expressed have changed a little since Chaliapin’s day, and two, I bet Ms. Netrebko owns more than one pair of PJs.)
We also went to see the Peter and Paul fortress today (Peter the Great’s big fortification that was never really used directly for military purposes, but became a center of government/administration nevertheless). This is a rather different sort of a musem – or rather, it’s somewhere between museum and park. Local people seem to come here just to stroll around, and there is an area along the outer edge of the fortress walls by the river that has been covered in sand, so it’s basically a small beach. Inside, you can see the church where the tsars are all buried. You can also see the Trubetskoy prison, which was where political prisoners were held in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. When you visit this area, you see a lot of little descriptions of various radical prisoners and how they were imprisoned, often mistreated, and often died. The attitude is one of sympathy and respect. But when you go and see the church of dead tsars, including the one killed during the revolution – the attitude is also appears to be one of sympathy and respect. There is this sort of weird internal tension about how to handle the past. The Chaliapin museum doesn’t have this problem – but of course its mission is a little simpler.