For more than fifty years after its premiere in Paris
in 1859, Gounod’s Faust was the world’s most popular opera. As
Richard Osborne’s chattily informative booklet note tells us, it was
"a landmark in French operatic history and a manifestly attractive
score, whose long-standing popularity in France is understandable but
whose success abroad was sensational". This phenomenal popularity,
and wealth of memorable set pieces, led to Enrico Caruso, Geraldine
Farrar and Marcel Journet recording extended highlights as early as
1909, and complete versions appeared from the early years of electrical
recording (there is a decent sounding Paris Opera set from 1931).
For many, the present set, a stereo remake of an earlier
recording by the same team, remains the safest all-round version the
gramophone has yet provided. The earlier 1953 set has much going for
it, with the three principals in glowing form, but the mono sound is
a bit constricted and boxy. Five years on, the stereo sound is remarkably
full-bodied and detailed (certainly in this new transfer), and save
for a touch of pre-echo in loud passages, is perfectly acceptable, with
virtually all traces of tape hiss removed. The only real problem is
the many tape edits, which are fairly obvious throughout, though one
does get used to them.
The conducting of Cluytens has been rather sniffily
described as ‘workmanlike’ and (even by Osborne) as merely ‘dependable’.
He knew the score inside out by this time, and where others may hear
a tired over-familiarity, I hear a well-shaped, dramatically intense
account. This is apparent from the start, where the adagio introduction
glowers menacingly, its many Wagnerian overtones played up rather than
down. The various waltzes, dance episodes and faster choruses are paced
with great exuberance, and he gets excellent results from his orchestra.
You will hear many ‘wobbly’ solos (bassoon, a very ‘French’ horn, reedy
clarinet etc.) but this adds to the authentically Gallic feel of the
The principals were, by this time, famous in their
various roles, and this shows in the intensity of the characterisations.
Victoria de los Angeles had made her Marguerite debut in 1949 (where
the 41-year-old set had infamously collapsed), and her testing opening
is superbly judged. The well-known Jewel Song, its coloratura difficulties
daunting to this day, is exemplary. She sang this role in many famous
productions, notably the Met. in 1953, where Pierre Monteux conducted,
Peter Brooks directed (controversially updating it, as he has done since)
and Jussi Bjoerling sang Faust. Later, the rising young star, Nicolai
Gedda, took over the title role, and the Met audience so took to the
pairing of Gedda and de los Angeles, that they dubbed it the Vikki and
Nikki show. Gedda was the tenor ‘find’ of the early 1950s, and his beautifully
natural head voice, unforced top end and natural feel for the language
(he was a gifted linguist) made him perfectly suited to Faust. His Act
One duet with Mephistopheles is wonderfully dramatic and effective,
and all his set pieces (particularly ‘Salut, demeure chaste et pure’)
show no problem with the cruelly high tessitura.
The Devil has all the best tunes (so the saying goes)
and that vocal actor supreme, Boris Christoff, has divided opinion as
Mephistopheles. "…villainously bad French" wrote one critic,
"a Chaliapin impostor" said another. Even a recent opera guide,
whilst giving this set top recommendation, finds Christoff "way
over-the-top, roaring and bawling his way through the score". Well,
to be frank, it is not subtle, but with an instrument like his, who
cares? His presence is overwhelming and immediate, as it should be,
and the sparring with Gedda is the sort of spine-tingling exchange you
simply don’t get anymore.
Of the smaller parts, I was particularly impressed
with Ernest Blanc, a singer I found a little bland in some later recordings.
He is on top form here, comfortably rising to top G sharp in his ‘Even
the bravest heart may swell’ (to give its slightly dated English translation).
He performance is as effective as any of the big names.
This is an obvious contender for a Great Recording
of the Century, whatever some may think of Cluytens or Christoff. It
is typically well packaged, with full text and translation. Despite
competition from some modern sets (Carlo Rizzi on Teldec, Richard Bonynge’s
all-star Decca production), this is the one to have, especially at medium
John Phillips has also listened to this recording
This is the classic de los Angeles set of Gounod’s
masterpiece, conducted by the much underrated André Cluytens,
with authentic French forces supported by a few international soloists.
It is issued in the ‘Great Recordings of the Century’ series and whilst
this set does not really qualify as "Great" it is certainly
very good to be able to welcome it back into the catalogue again.
It has been available in various guises over the years,
but has not been out of the catalogue for long at a stretch. This is
probably the most luxurious package we have seen. Accompanying the set
is a very full libretto, in German, French and English, together with
a comprehensive scenario of the plot plus a detailed discussion of the
performance and a description of where it fits in recording history
up until its issue date.
Victoria de los Angeles gives perhaps the most beautiful
rendition of the part of Marguerite, and this includes comparisons with
modern performances by Gasdia and Studer. She is ably supported by Nicolai
Gedda, who was a rising young star when this recording was made. De
los Angeles had sung the part first in 1949, many times with Jussi Björling
in the theatre as her leading man. The new partnership with Gedda was
very well received in the Met and other locations, and this was no doubt
the reason for his choice for this recording. This is a re-recording
in stereo of an earlier version (with largely the same forces).
Some commentators have criticised Cluyten’s conducting
style as somewhat workaday, and I suppose in some ways it is. I find
this a definite advantage however, as the natural beauty of Gounod’s
writing is allowed to stand on its own merits. It is not distorted by
romantic posturing as in some other recorded performances. There is
no doubt that Cluytens inspires the forces of the Orchestre et Choeurs
du Théâtre National de l’Opéra to a very high level,
and at this period of its life, not many could do this.
Boris Christoff gives an absolutely superb rendition
of Mephistofeles, one which is an example for others to marvel at. His
presence in front of the microphone is striking. One can believe that
one is actually listening to the Devil.
Although it is a little churlish to concentrate on
some members of the cast rather than others, I must commend the baritone
of Ernest Blanc, who makes the part of Valentin his own. It is strange
that in the 1860s, Valentin was considered by opera buffs to be a much
more important role than it is today, with his death scene being one
of the highlights of the score. Here, this scene is done with consummate
The EMI (France) recording is beginning to show its
age, but is quite acceptable and was produced by that doyen of French
producers, René Challan. At mid-price, this is a notable re-issue,
and vocally as good as you can get.
Recordings of the Century