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Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Faust - opera in five acts
Faust - Raoul Jobin (tenor)
Méphistophélès - Ezio Pinza (bass)
Valentin - Martial Singer (baritone)
Marguerite - Licia Albanese (soprano)
Siébel -Lucielle Browning (soprano)
Marthe - Thelma Votipka (mezzo-soprano)
Wagner - John Baker (baritone)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York/Sir Thomas Beecham


Where do we stand with Beecham’s Faust? Firstly, there’s the 1929-30 English language set headed by Heddle Nash and then the 1947-48 RPO recording with an almost all French cast. Both are currently available. In addition to these, live recordings have survived and this performance, which Raoul Jobin ensured was recorded, is one of at least three – possibly more - survivals from Beecham’s time at the Met where he was so active and distinguished a member of the French wing. He generally had Pinza – not a bad start – though he did sometimes have Norman Cordon. As Faust it was either Jobin or the excellent Charles Kullman (who has his detractors but I’m not usually among them) and as Siebel, usually Lucielle Browning. In fact this Met tour broadcast (from Boston) is a full strength team except possibly for Singher. He was an estimable musician and one remembers him with admiration from his Milhaud recordings but he wasn’t on top form on 15 April. Beecham’s other Valentins included Leonard Warren and John Charles Thomas – though fortunately both their impersonations of the role with the conductor have survived so we should perhaps be less concerned.

Pinza is, of course, magnificent and Jobin matches him for much of the time – though not all of the time, which is where Kullman scored over him. Albanese is a character actress of real repute though the voice itself is inclined to take on a slightly mezzo-ish depth. Never mind, she has the dramatic instincts in place. The smaller roles are well taken and that leaves Beecham. Well, he was never rocket propelled in this work and generally encouraged leisurely tempi. Though as he would doubtless be the first to point out, the average ear confuses speed and rhythm – and Beecham’s rhythmic underpinning here is sure, his conception of the work as a whole splendidly realised. Right from the start one can admire his direction of the Act I introduction – so flexible and winning. The Chorus comes in – somewhat distant but adequate for a private recording of this kind. Jobin is first – ringing and declamatory, superb rhythm and articulation of phrases, subtle highlighting of lyric peaks and troughs. Then Pinza, simply wonderful with great depth of tone across his range - characterisation without exaggeration. I wouldn’t make too much of Singher’s problems but he is unsteady in O toi in Act II (and going up in the Invocation). In fact so is another voice - the prompter, I assume, who can be clearly heard – and crikey is he a busy man. Beecham sounds to be enjoying the grand seignorial swagger behind Pinza in the Rondo – though, a warning to those who are expecting the moon; the sound is a bit crude along the way.

The Met strings sound on good, spruce Gallic form in Nous nous retrouverons, mes amis and indeed they cultivate a bright and crisp impression all round; the Chorus too sounds well trained for the occasion. As for Jobin’s Salut! Demeure chaste et pure it’s not so bad – it’s not virile in the way Kullman is but more soft grained and intimate; less effusively romantic. No, I don’t think Albanese sounds youthful enough in the Chanson du Roi de Thulé but she shows signs of her impersonation to come later on; careful and clever singing and acting, as well as tonally frequently resplendent on her own terms. Let’s finish with Thelma Votipka and Lucielle Browning who tend to be edged out of discussions given the excellence of the principals. Browning is consistently good and Votipka shows in her Act III Que vois-je, Signeur Dieu! just how strong a cast this was – witty and perfectly characterised.

The acetates sound to have been in generally good condition and I doubt Jobin played through the set much before bequeathing them to the National Library of Canada. Restorer Richard Caniell has had to equalize throughout (the two turntables used to record the opera, as so often, had different characteristics). There’s a small patch in the Soldier’s Chorus but more of a problem in Act III Scene II where two discs were missing – longer patches from Beecham’s 1943 broadcast survival have been used, along with a smaller patch from the duel scene from a performance led by Pelletier in 1944. They’ve been expertly carried out. If you don’t know Beecham’s way with Pinza et al at the Met here is a fine place to start.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Robert Farr


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