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Georges Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)

Faust - an opera in five acts - Faust on record; a look back and into the future


Fifty years ago one of the most popular operas in the repertoire was Gounod’s Faust. Suddenly it fell out of fashion among those in control of opera houses. It was deemed rather trite by conductors. This at a time when the early works of Verdi were enjoying a renaissance. Certain critics clamoured for opera houses to commission new works and not depend on those from the19th century. Far too often when such commissions come to fruition the work concerned lacked dramatic cohesion and anything recognisable as a tune! This might be OK for critics who tire of seeing the old warhorses, but the general public like a cohesive plot with the story illuminated by melody. Also if the production and sets are in a form that the public can recognise as relating to the plot so much the better. Among these conflicting views Faust was forgotten, at least in the UK. Full of tunes and dramatic situations it became passé. It seemed that over-cerebral administrators and conductors tended to look down their noses at it. At least that was the situation until Antonio Pappano became Musical Director at London’s Covent Garden. In my review of EMI’s Carmen under his baton , and featuring Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna, I expressed the view that this team, with the addition of a good basso for Mephisto, would make a fine cast for Faust. So when Covent Garden announced a new production of Faust featuring this team plus Bryn Terfel my heart beat a flutter of anticipation. Sadly EMI, to whom at least two of this cast are contracted, has given up studio recording of opera postulating the future to be with DVD issues of stage productions. Then it was announced that the Covent Garden production was to be broadcast on terrestrial television in the UK by the BBC. This is not something that happens very often and I didn’t feel like Nostradamus in predicting a DVD version. The marketing gurus will determine whether EMI will issue a parallel CD version as other companies have done. A CD version will enter a market in which there is no all-out winner. With these facts in mind I thought it a good time to review the Covent Garden production and the available CD versions of this melodic opera.

The Covent Garden production was dressed in the time of the work’s composition rather than the medieval period of Goethe’s conception and Gounod’s intention. Nonetheless the dress and sets were such that I could easily recognise the opera as Faust. This made a pleasant change from a few nights earlier when I had been subjected to a Pagliacci where the commedia dell’arte players were represented as a rock band and the audience at their supposed play threw paper aeroplanes at each other! Needless to say the cerebral critics didn’t think much of this Faust choosing to focus on one of Mephistopheles’ costumes, six in all, when he appeared in drag and tiara during the Walpurgis Night scene. The orchestral playing under Pappano’s well-paced and dramatic portrayal was outstanding as was the contribution of the chorus, so important in this opera. The solo singing was more mixed but never less than good. Alagna as Faust was a little dry toned but his French was easy and fluent and his portrayal believable. He delivered an eloquently phrased Salut! Demeure chaste et pure, which was rapturously received. As Marguerite Angela Gheorghiu was rather too knowing in The King of Thule and somewhat over-avaricious as she surveyed the jewels. Nonetheless her singing was fluent, pure-toned and eloquently phrased throughout. Perhaps the best singing of the evening, and a formidably acted portrayal, came from Simon Keenlyside as Valentin, Marguerite’s brother. His Avant de quitter was smooth, full-bodied and rounded of tone. It was a major vocal highlight of the performance. The Mephisto of Bryn Terfel was a histrionic tour de force. His size, stage presence and flexibility of facial expression suit the part like a glove. His French was good, but in the ultimate analysis his sonorous bass baritone, no matter how well he coloured his tone, has not the sheer heft that a full bass could give the part. On DVD his acting powers will obscure that deficiency. However, on CD with only the sound, his portrayal will have to stand comparison with some formidable bass interpreters of the role.

In the post-World War Two period EMI have dominated the commercial recording world as far as Faust is concerned with no fewer than five visits to the studio. The first, in 1949, was conducted by Beecham and is distinguished by having a Francophone cast from the Paris Opera ensemble. I last saw this abbreviated version available at full price on the Preiser label. I am surprised it hasn’t come to the attention of Naxos whose re-mastering of the Francophone Carmen featuring Solange Michel has been much admired [Review by Richard Lee-Van den Daele ]. For better or worse this Faust was quickly overtaken in the catalogue when EMI recorded an international cast of Victoria de los Angeles, Nicolai Gedda and Boris Christoff. This LP set was a staple in my family and was the vehicle by which I learnt to love the music before being entranced by a Sadlers Wells production that used UV light to enhance the magical effects in the Walpurgis Night scene. Shortly after the advent of stereo EMI took the same polyglot international trio back into the studio. For this stereo remake, in the Salle de Mutualité in Paris, the trio were joined by French speakers, Rita Gorr, Ernest Blanc, Victor Autran and Liliane Berton. Despite further EMI visits to the studio in 1978 and 1991 it has, for many people, remained the gold standard recording and has been re-issued as a GROC. (see review by Tony Haywood) The recording is rather flat and two dimensional by today’s best standards but the voices are clearly placed and the orchestral playing well caught. There is some strain evident in Gedda’s Faust. Poor French and his rather glottal vocal production mar Christoff’s superbly saturnine Mephisto. That being said all the soloists characterise superbly with de los Angeles’ Marguerite being an outstanding vocal portrayal. The recording coheres into a dramatic whole under the idiomatic baton of the Belgium-born André Cluytens. His interpretation has not been equalled on record.

In 1978 EMI recorded another non-Francophone cast in the Salle Wagram, Paris. The warm acoustic does not compensate for Prêtre’s rigidity of tempo and phrase. Domingo’s Faust is among the most vocally secure and elegantly sung on record although his French limits the depth of his characterisation. Ghiaurov as Mephistopheles is good but his singing has not the freedom and richness he brought to the part with Sutherland on the earlier Decca issue. Freni is a little too heavy as Marguerite. The best singing comes from Thomas Allen as Valentin. This version would be more competitive at mid-price especially now that the EMI’s 1991 recording is the company’s flagship. Recorded under Plasson’s idiomatic baton this later recording benefits from the sympathetic acoustic of the Halle-aux-Grains, Toulouse. Despite three of the principals being American, all sing with good French. Richard Leech has heroic punch and honeyed tone as well as elegant phrasing as Faust. Cheryl Studer fines down her voice to portray an appealing and young-sounding Marguerite. The Valentin of Thomas Hampson is outstanding in tone colour, phrasing and interpretation. The same can be said of the Belgian José van Damm as Mephistopheles, but he, like Terfel, is a bass-baritone and despite some superb singing and characterisation lacks the ultimate ‘oomph’ that a true bass of comparable skills would bring to the part.

True basses sing Mephistopheles in two other versions, one being of particular all-round worth. The first at mid-price from Decca features Ghiaurov caught at his magnificent best. His French is far better than fellow Bulgarian Christoff and his is the outstanding portrayal on this set. Bonynge’s conducting is well shaped and paced. Joan Sutherland makes a girlish but bland Marguerite; given her diction her standard of French isn’t an issue! Corelli sings Corelli rather than Faust. The second bass worthy of consideration is Sam Ramey in the more recommendable 1993 Teldec version. With the Welsh National Opera Chorus and Orchestra rather unevenly conducted by their then musical director Carlo Rizzi, it was recorded in Swansea’s Brangwyn Hall which provides a sympathetic acoustic for a well-balanced recording. Ramey’s singing is sonorous, tuneful and beautiful to listen to. But it is too bland to my ears, conveying little of the sardonic and the saturnine that should be at the heart of the role and of any meaningful characterisation. Of the other principals, Jerry Hadley with his light-toned tenor as Faust and Cecilia Gasdia as Marguerite, contribute elegant, idiomatic and heartfelt portrayals as individuals whilst as a pair of lovers they are as good as any on disc. Agache is a rather rough-hewn as Valentin. Given its sonic quality and the excellent singing in the lesser solo roles, this version is worthy of consideration if a modern recording is paramount. Other versions feature Te Kanawa (Philips) and Caballé (Erato). Neither has much to commend it other than the singing of the divas as Marguerite.

Regrettably, Jüssi Bjorling’s name is missing from my list of those singing Faust. Oh that it had been he not Gedda on those early EMI recordings. Given what is available, the choice of the best all-round performance rests between the 1958 early stereo version and either the 1991 EMI or the 1991 Teldec versions. If recording quality is paramount then the choice rests between the latter two, both having worthwhile virtues. It is possible to make one’s choice and have highlights from the other recordings, although it must be stated that such CDs flit in and out of the catalogue. A generous 75 minutes of highlights from the 1958 EMI recording is on the Eminence label at bargain price. Frustratingly it concludes at the end of the final trio and misses the concluding Christ est ressucité by the chorus as Marguerite’s soul ascends to heaven. This is present on the extracts from the Teldec set which in its generous 76 minutes includes over six minutes of the ballet music. This has been available in Teldec’s ‘Opera Collection’ series at mid-price. Some deleted items from this series are being reissued on the Warner’s Elatus label. The highlights from the 1991 EMI recording are at full price and are the least generous at 63 minutes. That issue also finishes with the final trio and misses out the final chorus.

If it emerges as a CD as well as a DVD, a new version deriving from the recent Covent Garden performance and featuring Roberto Alagna, Angela Gheorghiu, Simon Keenlyside and Bryn Terfel under Pappano’s vibrant baton will face formidable competition as well as adding to our choice of good if not outstanding performances. None of the recordings I have covered is perfect, but all provide many moments of listening pleasure in a work that has not lost its popular appeal in the UK despite lack of theatre performances.

Robert J Farr

PREISER. 1949. Georges Nore Roger Rico Roger Bourdin Beecham 90355 Crotchet

EMI 1958

Complete as a ‘GROC’. 5 67967 2 (3 CDs) Nicolai Gedda Victoria de los Angeles Boris Christoff André Cluytens Review: Tony Haywood

Highlights. on ‘Eminence’ 7 64804 2

EMI 1985

Complete. 747493 8 (3 CDs) Placido Domingo Nicolai Ghiaurov Thomas Allen Georges Pretre Crotchet

Highlights. 763090 2

EMI 1991

Complete. 556224 2 (3CDs) Jose van Dam Thomas Hampson Richard Leech Cheryl Studer Plasson Crotchet

Highlights. 754358 2 Crotchet

Teldec 1993

Complete. 4509 90872-2 (3 CDs) Jerry Hadley Cecilia Gasdia Samuel Ramey Brigitte Fassbaender Carlo Rizzi Crotchet

Highlights. 0630-13806-9

Decca 1966. Complete. 470 563-2 (DOC 3) Franco Corelli Joan Sutherland Nicolai Ghiaurov Monica Sinclair Richard Bonynge
but still available on 421 240-2 (DM3) in Decca Grand Opera Series Crotchet

July 2004

Another recording worth your attention and not mentioned above is an alternative Beecham

Faust, Raoul Jobin (ten); Méphistophélès, Ezio Pinza (bass); Valentin, Martial Singer (bar); Marguerite, Licia Albanese (sop); Siébel, Lucielle Browning (sop); Marthe, Thelma Votipka (m.sop); Wagner, John Baker (bar) Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York/Sir Thomas Beecham
Private recording made for Raoul Jobin of the ‘Met’ tour broadcast, from Boston, on 15th April 1944.
GUILD HISTORICAL IMMORTAL PERFORMANCE SERIES GHCD 2258-59 [2CDs: 75.35+74.41] Reviews Jonathan Woolf Robert Farr


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