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Georges Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Faust - opera in five acts (presented here as three acts and eight scenes) (1852-59)
Faust - Alfredo Kraus (tenor); Méphistophélès - Nicolai Ghiaurov (bass); Valentin - Lorenzo Saccomani (baritone); Marguerite - Renata Scotto (soprano); Siébel - Milena Dal Piva (soprano); Marthe - Anna di Stasio (mezzo); Wagner - Paolo Mazzotta (baritone)
NHK Symphony Orchestra and Opera Chorus/Paul Ethuin
rec. live, September 1973. NHK Hall, Tokyo
bonus interview with Renata Scotto rec. 2007
Picture format: NTSC; Colour; 4:3
Sound format: Mono
Subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Japanese. With embedded Japanese subtitles that remain on screen.
VAI 4417 [187:00 + 37:00]
Experience Classicsonline

Gounod’s Faust has a particular place in my affections. In the early 1950s, having attended one of Gigli’s farewell concerts - only Frank Sinatra managed more - and being used to listening to opera arias and complete operas at home, my parents took me to my first live opera. It was Faust performed by Sadlers Wells in Manchester. The cast was memorable. Harvey Allan as Mephisto, Roland Jones in the eponymous role and the redoubtable Amy Shuard as Marguerite. The production was made more memorable by the use of ultra-violet light. Mephistopheles flashing and glowing eye effects remain with me in memory nearly sixty years on. In those far away 1950s Gounod’s Faust was one of the most popular operas in the repertoire. Rather suddenly it fell out of fashion among those in control of opera houses. It was deemed rather trite by cerebral conductors and critics who clamoured for opera houses to commission new works. No longer was there to be a dependence on operas from the 19th century, although it was also a time when the early works of Verdi were enjoying a renaissance. 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. My last live performance of Faust was by Opera North in 1991 with an excellent cast of Richard Van Allan, Anne Dawson and Arthur Davies. By no means as memorable as my first, the production was sensible and recognisable although it did not include the ballet - presumably for reasons of cost. Meanwhile whilst the welcome Rossini renaissance has gathered pace, Faust has continued to gather dust. I thought David McVicar’s Royal Opera House production of 2004, firmly set at the time of the work’s composition, and with Bryn Terfel somewhat idiosyncratically in drag for Walpurgis Night, might herald a Faust renaissance. It hasn’t. It did stimulate me to write A Faust on Record when I expressed the hope that the Royal Opera production, which featured on BBC television in Britain, would make it onto CD and DVD. It hasn’t.
As well as the omission of the ballet, the Opera North production included spoken dialogue as distinct from sung recitative. There is no definitive text of Faust. First composed for the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris in the opéra comique tradition with spoken dialogue, Gounod’s intentions were butchered by the management and by the diva so that the premiere in 1859 was not as the composer intended. Over the next ten years as Faust was seen and acclaimed all over the world, Gounod added and amended the score to meet the needs of various singers and theatres. The ballet was added for production at the Paris Opéra. In consequence there is no definitive version. With much autograph material in private hands none seems likely. The version presented in Japan in 1973, which is the basis for this recording, was what was likely to be seen and heard in Italy at La Scala and elsewhere. It features sung recitative, but given in Italian rather than, as here, the original French.
On DVD Faust has fared badly. The only version I can find available is the 1985 Vienna production by Ken Russell, the enfant terrible of English music films. The double disc issue by DG features Bénackova’s vocally admired Marguerite, Ruggero Raimondi camping up Méphistophélès and Francisco Araiza in the title role (00440 073 4108). As things stand Boito’s Mefistofele is far better served on DVD than Faust. Given this scarcity I welcome this issue, but only with severe limitations. The best news is that it provides an opportunity to see and hear three of the greatest interpreters of the three principal roles by singers of their, or any generation. We hear Renata Scotto as Marguerite, Nicolai Ghiaurov as Méphistophélès, and the vocally elegant Canarian tenor Alfredo Kraus in the title role. Although the rather woolly picture cannot disguise the fact that Scotto and Kraus are past the first flush of youth, their singing is full of expression and many vocal felicities. Lithe of figure, and moving like a young infatuate, Kraus sings the top B in the Kermesse (Ch. 9) and C in Salut! Demeure (Ch 11) from the chest, with strength, steadiness and without spread. His acting is convincing and vocal elegance of phrasing exemplary. Committed acting and a wide range of vocal expression are also to be found in Renata Scotto’s Marguerite. Her Il était un Roi de Thulé and Jewel Song (Ch. 12-13) are sung with rich tone and a wide range of vocal colour. She makes no attempt to lighten her voice for the sort of false girlish effect that marred her interpretation of Butterfly on the EMI CD set conducted by Barbirolli (see review). She does lighten her voice as she opens the Jewel Box and is enraptured by its contents, with her face and body also expressing her feelings along with her voice - marvellous. Age matters less in terms of appearance for Méphistophélès. Tall, slim and a very good actor, Nicolai Ghiaurov’s vocal range, and flexibility are ideal for the role. Add his true bass strength and sonority and his rendering of Le veau d’or and serenade, with its mocking laughs, are highlights (Chs.7 and 22) in a quite magnificent portrayal. This performance was Scotto’s first in French. She had previously sung the role in Italian and along with all three principals she manages the language idiomatically.
As I have already implied, not all in this particular DVD garden is lovely. Many of the failings are explained by the source of the recording. It derives from one of a number of opera productions presented in Japan by Lirica Italiana from the mid-1950s onwards. These performances aimed to introduce the Japanese public to the best of European opera. The number of Japanese singers on the international stage today is perhaps a measure of their success. The performances were recorded in mono for transcription on Japanese TV. The mono sound is often thin and wiry with the words in Japanese text embedded in the film. The subtitles in English etc are overlaid on the Japanese characters. The removal of these Japanese characters in the transfer from film to DVD was not possible without serious deterioration of the quality and consequently has not been attempted. As that quality is already rather visually woolly this would have made the venture commercially unsustainable. The picture is not as sharp as we are used to and is not of the standard as that from New York’s Met or the Unitel Films at a similar period. The stage is often poorly lit, with only the brightest of colours standing out. Of course many of the scenes are dark in themselves, as in the opening in Faust’s study (Chs 2-4), but the TV production and lack of additional lighting does not help. However the compromises are worthwhile and are no greater than those for the enjoyment of listening to historical CDs for the sake of a great interpretation, but with the significant advantage of the visual image. The bonus interview with Renata Scotto, recorded in 2007, will be of interest to opera enthusiasts.
The set is a circular dais with steps. Various additions are made for Faust’s study and elsewhere. Drapes allow Méphistophélès and Faust to secrete themselves when appropriate. The basic simplicity aids the swift movement between scenes in this presentation of what is normally a five act opera. It also has the advantage of restricting the number of curtain calls shown. The production is simple with no gimmicks or concepts. By present day standards it is rather four-square as is the conducting. The singing and acting of the comprimario roles is not of the standard of the three principals. It is the latter’s contribution that makes this Faust worth watching and hearing despite the caveats I have outlined.
Robert J Farr


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