Charles GOUNOD (1818 – 1893)
Faust – grand opera in five acts (1859)
Jussi Björling (tenor) – Faust; Elisabeth Söderström (soprano) – Marguerite; Cesare Siepi (bass) – Mephistopheles; Robert Merrill (baritone) – Valentin; Mildred Miller (soprano) – Siebel; Thelma Votipka (mezzo) – Marthe; Ronald Reitan (bass) – Wagner
Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera/Jean Morel
rec. live, Metropolitan Opera, New York, 19 December 1959
Biographical and technical notes on the leaflet but no sung texts. Additional notes can be obtained at www.pristineclassical.com
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO 064 [77:20 + 79:23]
This broadcast recording by NBC from one of Jussi Björling’s last opera performances, has been issued before on Robin Hood Records RHR 5021-5023 but in rather poor sound. I haven’t heard the LPs but trustworthy ‘ear-witnesses’ state that the present issue is a vast improvement. My first reaction was also that for its age – the recording was made 62 years ago – the sound is remarkable. It is true that sound recording and reproduction technique had developed enormously during the first decade of the LP record. Stereo recordings had been made in some quarters for about five years and the dynamic range in some recordings and notably Decca had their Full Frequency Stereo Sound. It should be remembered that about this time Decca issued Solti’s Das Rheingold, the first instalment in the epoch-making Ring cycle. They also had Karajan’s tremendous Otello. Those were studio recordings but broadcasts were for many years hampered by poor frequency range. The sound here is mono and the dynamic expansion is fairly limited. It is however a clean sound and one gets a rather realistic image of the orchestra. The voices are well projected and free from distortion. At times the orchestra comes across as almost too brilliant, even aggressive, but that may be due to Jean Morel’s not insensitive but energetic conducting. The waltz (CD 1 tr 8) is more thrilling than in any other recording I’ve heard. The reverse side of this coin is also notable: a number of unwanted sounds from the stage are also reproduced with true fidelity. We have, however, become used to stage noises during the first decade of the new millennium, when more and more opera recordings are made live – and now with even higher fidelity. I have reported in some reviews of especially noisy productions where I have taken shelter behind furniture to avoid being hit by flying objects. No such danger here but there is an assortment of extra-musical sources of sound that have to be coped with while enjoying the music and the singing.
The music is well known. Even though Gounod’s sometimes over-sweet idiom is quite unfashionable no one can honestly deny the abundance of beautiful, and sometimes dramatically valid, melodies. Those who know their Faust should be warned that there is far too little of the music on offer here. This is easy to understand from the number of discs. There isn’t room for all the Faust music on two CDs. That was the state of affairs at the Met in those days. The opera had always been performed heavily cut. All the titbits are there but the filling is sometimes meagre. To some this may be a blessing, others want the whole thing – and 2:36:43 still makes a pretty big cake.
Where no one can complain is in relation to the quality of the singing. Jussi Björling was a great Faust. I have friends who maintain that he was at his very best in French repertoire. Unfortunately he only retained two French roles when he embarked upon his international career – and neither Faust nor Romeo et Juliette was recorded commercially. We are lucky to have both in good live recordings from the Met, Faust twice. When I reviewed the 1950 Faust (review) some years ago the first paragraph read ‘This 3 CD set contains some of the most glorious tenor singing ever recorded. Buy it!!!’ Here, nine years later, almost to the day, he is still in tremendous shape. He was an extraordinary singer with remarkable stamina. Not yet five years old he gave his first public concert together with his brothers and his father. During the next twelve years the boys gave more than one thousand concerts all over Sweden and in the US. From the age of 19, when he made his debut at the Stockholm opera and until his untimely death in September 1960 when he was only 49, he sang another two thousand opera performances and recitals. His heart problems had increased during the 1950s and when this performance took place he had less than nine months to live. Even so, there is very little in his singing that reveals weakening health or diminishing vocal ability. He slightly fluffs the very first phrase but after that he is just as magnificent as on the 1950 recording. Once or twice the voice seems marginally heavier but it is, by and large, the same Björling as ever. Those who doubt my judgement need only lend an ear to Quel trouble ... salut, demeure (CD 1 tr 12) the famous cavatina. Whether it surpasses the 1950 recording is open to debate. Maybe the high C is not as free this time, but it is still a reading that must be counted among the best on record. The garden scene (CD 2 tr 1-3) is further evidence that here is a singer still in his prime.
In this scene there is also a magical rapport between Björling and his Marguerite. She is the young Elisabeth Söderström, who had made her Met debut a couple of months earlier as Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro - she was later to become the Contessa. A couple of weeks before the broadcast she sang her first ever Marguerite. She had been Manon Lescaut opposite Björling in Stockholm but this was something much bigger. In her memoirs I min tonart (In My Key) (Bonniers, 1978, not available in English, I believe) she recalls the situation: ‘It was with terror in my heart and on trembling legs that I walked to the theatre that evening: we had had only one run-through with orchestra and sets, I wasn’t sufficiently prepared. I bewailed my distress to Jussi, who looked at me with compassion and answered: ‘Little friend, you have nothing to be afraid of, there aren’t many who demand much of you yet. It is much worse for me; everybody expects to find out whether I am finished or whether I can live up to my reputation.’” I haven’t been able to find a review of her Faust debut but the reception of her house debut some weeks earlier should have strengthened her self-confidence: ‘Elisabeth Soederstroem was a delightful Susanna in every respect. Her bright, flexible voice was always dependable and she proved to be a resourceful actress. One of the most impressive indications of her artistry was the fact that her singing in the ensembles was just as finished as it was in her solo arias.’ (Robert Sabin, Musical America). Le nozze di Figaro was a new production and there had been adequate rehearsal time, while Faust had been in the repertoire for ages and guest singers just popped in and out. Listening to this recording one can conclude that everything worked exactly as it should. Ms Söderström shows her credentials with aplomb in a gloriously sung Jewel aria (CD 1 tr. 14). All through the performance she is in radiant voice and draws a vivid portrait of a character that can seem one-dimensional when sung prettily without proper characterization. I have admired Söderström ever since I first heard her – probably on the radio. I have enjoyed her on so many recordings and in the flesh in opera and recital. Vocally she has never sounded better than here. It should be mentioned that she had a long career and sang her last performances at the Met as the Countess in Queen of Spades in April 1999, almost forty years after her debut there. She passed away in November 2009. Readers who know little about this many-sided artist may access some information from my obituary (here).
There is even more vocal splendour on offer in this performance. Cesare Siepi repeats his Mephistopheles from the 1950 recording and is as magnificent here. The intervening nine years gave him even more authority and the voice is still in fine fettle. Another stalwart at the Met, Robert Merrill, pours out golden tone that surpasses most of his baritone colleagues. Not the most charismatic of actors, he still manages to invest his portrait of Valentin with power and energy. Mildred Miller is a very fine Siebel and Thelma Votipka is a Marthe to reckon with.
There is another irritant that must not pass unnoticed: the Met audience’s bad behaviour. They start clapping long before a number is finished. As always with live recordings one has to accept blemishes like that. The singing is what counts and no one is likely to be disappointed on that account. This issue is a must for Jussi Björling’s many admirers and it is a real bonus to get world class performances from Söderström, Merrill and Siepi in the bargain.
A must for Jussi Björling’s many admirers.