Charles GOUNOD (1818 - 1893)
Jerry Hadley (tenor) - Faust; Samuel Ramey (bass) - Méphistophélès; Cecilia Gasdia (soprano) - Marguerite; Alexandru Agache (baritone) - Valentin; Susanne Mentzer (mezzo) - Siebel; Brigitte Fassbaender (soprano) - Marthe; Philippe Fourcade (baritone) - Wagner; Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera/Carlo Rizzi
rec. Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, July 1993
Synopsis in English, French and German enclosed.
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 67691-5 [3 CDs: 65:53 + 73:09 + 72:58]
Recordings of Faust have not appeared too frequently since the beginning of the LP era. On EMI there was an early mono recording under André Cluytens with the young Nicolai Gedda, an almost as young Victoria de los Angeles and with Boris Christoff as a formidable but unidiomatic Méphistophélès. It was replaced in the late fifties by a stereo version, again under Cluytens and with the same three principals. That has been widely regarded as the classic modern version. Today the sound begins to show its age but it still has claims to be a first recommendation. In between there was a recording with forces from the Vienna State Opera under Gianfranco Rivoli with Leopold Simoneau, Pierrette Alarie and Heinz Rehfuss. It was released by Concert Hall Record Club and thus only reached Club members. In the nineties it appeared on CD though. In the mid-sixties Decca released a set under the direction of Richard Bonynge with a droopy Joan Sutherland, a glorious but overblown Franco Corelli and with Nicolai Ghiaurov singing Mephistopheles, less formidable than Christoff but more authentic in style. Erato came up with a set in 1976 conducted by Alain Lombard, featuring Giacomo Aragall, Montserrat Caballé and Paul Plishka A couple of years later Georges Prêtre, EMI again, had Placido Domingo in the title role with Mirella Freni a lovely Marguerite and Ghiaurov taking the devil’s role once more. In 1985 Opus issued a recording from Bratislava, conducted by Ondrej Lenard with Peter Dvorsky as Faust, Magdalena Hajossyova as Marguerite and Sergei Koptchak as Mephistopheles. Next in turn was Colin Davis the following year with a Philips recording from Munich. Francesco Araiza, Kiri Te Kanawa and Evgeny Nesterenko took the leading parts. In 1991 EMI issued their fourth Faust. Michel Plasson conducted, Richard Leech sang Faust, Cheryl Studer was Marguerite and José Van Dam impersonated Mephistopheles. The present set came in 1993. This sums up all the studio recordings in the original. To this list can be added the Chandos set in their “Opera in English” series. David Parry conducted with Paul Charles Clarke, Mary Plazas and Alastair Miles in the leading roles. It should be added also that during the first half of the last century quite a number of more or less complete recordings were made, the first as early as 1908 under Bruno Seidler-Winkler with a stellar trio consisting of Karl Jörn, Emmy Destinn and Paul Knüpfer, and Sir Thomas Beecham set it down twice.
Leaving those early efforts aside, how does Rizzi’s recording stand up against the competition? Very well, in fact, a couple of drawbacks apart. On the other hand one of these drawbacks is a serious one and it concerns the conducting. The choral and orchestral forces of the Welsh National Opera have long been a well-known capacity and the singing and playing are of the highest order, caught in excellent sound. Carlo Rizzi no doubt loves this score but in this case he almost kills his darling through dragging too much. It is, mostly, a very slow recording and however beautiful the music is, it tends to lose momentum and become sentimental. Not that it is unbearably syrupy and I don’t mind wallowing in the lush harmonies and the lovely melodies but I would have preferred a little more ‘go’.
All this is redeemed by solo singing that is among the best on any of the aforementioned alternative recordings. I doubt that there has been a better Faust than Jerry Hadley since the heyday of Nicolai Gedda and even he has to give way to Hadley when it comes to unforced, effortless and extremely nuanced romantic singing. I haven’t heard the Simoneau recording but I can imagine that his must have been a reading in the same mould. But Hadley, though very lyrical, has more power in reserve and can ride the orchestra even in the more powerful moments. The cavatina (CD 1 tr. 21) is masterly, inward instead of a brilliant showpiece and he takes the high C pianissimo in head-voice. I haven’t heard him better than here. His Marguerite is no less accomplished. Cecilia Gasdia never became a regular recording artist - at least not in the standard opera repertoire - and that becomes even more inexplicable when listening to her Marguerite. Like Hadley she is sensitive, inward, vulnerable and pure-toned. Victoria de los Angeles and Mirella Freni are outstanding and the phenomenally versatile Cheryl Studer was also able to scale down her Wagner/Strauss voice to encompass also this role but Gasdia is Marguerite and the interplay with Hadley in the garden scene (CD 2 tr. 9) is enchanting. Before that she has already presented her credentials in a fine jewel aria. Moreover both singers have excellent French, a good sense of style and are able tp create characters of flesh and blood.
There are more good things to come. Alexandru Agache may not be very French sounding, for that you have to go to Ernest Blanc on the Cluytens II or Robert Massard on the otherwise not recommendable Bonynge set, but he too is well inside his role and he sings with steady beautiful tone and good legato. Susanne Mentzer is full of character, trouser roles something of a speciality for her, and she sings better than any other Siebel in my memory. She is also given an extra solo, cut before the premiere, and here given in an appendix where the ballet music is also found. No less an artist than Brigitte Fassbaender was brought in for the little role as Marthe and with her characteristic voice deep involvement this pays dividends. Samuel Ramey was, in the 1990s, the self-evident choice for Mephistopheles and he delivers the strong, steady, sonorous, manly singing we expect. But something is still missing: characterisation. Christoff, for all his waywardness when it comes to style, is a personality, José Van Damm, who knows the French idiom better than anyone else - he is from Belgium, I know - also delineates a believable character. But for sheer singing Ramey is hard to beat, and we have to be grateful for that.
As is the norm with budget issues, there is no libretto provided, but a French libretto together with English and German translations can be found at www.opera-guide.ch/opern_komponisten.php.
Short summary: I won’t give up the two Gedda recordings and I still have a soft spot for Colin Davis’s set, though more for the conducting than the singing. The Plasson, which I have only heard in excerpts, may be on the same level, but this Rizzi set, at super budget price, trumps its competitors in many ways, not least the singing of Hadley and Gasdia.
This Rizzi set, at super budget price, trumps its competitors in many ways, not least the singing of Hadley and Gasdia.