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Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Faust. Opera in five Acts (1859)
Faust: Georges Noré, tenor
Mephistopheles: Roger Rico, bass
Valentin: Roger Bourdin, baritone
Wagner: Ernest Frank, baritone
Siebel: Huguette Saint-Arnaud, mezzo soprano
Marguérite: Geori Boué, soprano
Martha: Betty Bannermann, mezzo soprano
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus/Beecham
CD transfer of 1948 HMV recording
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The high seriousness of the Faust legend is given a Gallic twist in this typically French opera. Gounod's librettists, Michel Carré and Jules Barbier, contented themselves with a love story that does not feature in other versions, and any resemblance is to the Faust legend is little more than that between Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld and the Greek myth. (Nevertheless, the pedantic Germans chose to rename the opera Margarethe). Either way, Faust comes closer to operetta than grand opera and, needless to say, Beecham, takes it in his stride. From the opening bars it is clear that here we have a crisp, lively performance with, for its time, a remarkably clean and convincing sound from both orchestra and singers, all without having to play the thirty-two sides of the original 78 rpm recording made in EMI's Abbey Road studio.

Appearing in true pantomime fashion (through the floor in a flash of red light) Mephistopheles makes a pact that grants the old philosopher eternal youth in exchange for his soul, producing an image of Marguérite to clinch the deal. Again like panto, the devil has many of the best tunes. Roger Rico's excellent Mephistopheles makes his mark early in the opera with a thrilling, fast-paced Le veau d'or (the "golden calf" aria) and continues with an impressive presence throughout, especially in the mocking "serenade", Qu'attendez vous encore? in Act IV. George Noré's lightish tenor is at its best in the romantic scenes, but rises nobly to the occasion when, in the last Act, Faust gets his come-uppance. Geori Boué, a pleasingly youthful Marguérite, copes easily with the bel canto demands of her part in such arias as the famous "jewel song", in Act III.

It could hardly be said that Faust has maintained the high reputation it had in the nineteenth century operatic repertoire, and this vivacious performance is a welcome opportunity to re-evaluate the delicious melody and subtle characterisations that Gounod distils from what, in other versions (for example. Boito's Mefistofele (1868)) can seem a somewhat turgid subject for a lengthy opera. It needs no better champion than Sir Thomas Beecham to realise the drama and pathos of this delightful score with wit, intelligence and panache. Faust is high on the list of successes in this Naxos series of "historic" recordings, and makes a good case for performing the opera in its original French.

Roy Brewer

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