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Charles GOUNOD (1818–93)
Faust – Opera in five acts (1859) [142:38]
Giuliano Romagnoli (tenor) – Faust; Gemma Bosini (soprano) – Margherita; Fernando Autori (bass) – Mefistofeles; Gilda Timitz (soprano) – Siebel; Napoleone Limonta (baritone) – Wagner; Adolfo Pacini (baritone) – Valentino; Nelda Garrone (mezzo) – Marta
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Carlo Sabajno
rec. Milan, 1-14 June 1920
Italian libretto enclosed. English and French translations included.
DIVINE ART DDH27810 [72:29 + 70:09]

This recording of Faust, sung in Italian, sheds light on performance practices of a century ago. In the days before jet-setting singers, opera was often sung in the language of the country where it was performed — except in England, where French and German operas were usually performed in Italian.

It may horrify purists today, but Wagner himself believed that performing the work in a language the audience understood made it more immediate. I’ve heard Meyerbeer (link ~ link) sung in Russian, German and Italian, as well as in French. Massenet, who had studied in Italy as a Prix de Rome winner, reworked his operas for Italian opera audiences.

To a Francophone ear, though, there’s something odd about hearing Faust in Italian; it distorts the vocal line, and vitiates the opera’s quintessentially Gallic blend of worldly wit, piety, sentimentality, cynicism and the supernatural.

The performance was recorded acoustically, by The Gramophone Company without microphones or electronic amplification, so it lacks the clarity of a studio recording. Often the sound is tinny, and the singers, chorus or orchestra get lost or garbled.

There is an omnipresent hiss in the background – not enough to distract or annoy the listener, but one has to listen through the hiss, which is joined by crackling towards the end. This makes it hard to appreciate the skill of Gounod’s orchestration, which has, in any case, been changed for recording purposes. It should be noted that the organ in the church scene has been dropped.

Conductor Carlo Sabajno (1874-1938) has a feel for Gounod’s music; he keeps the action driving forward – but primitive recording techniques make it difficult to appreciate the singing.

Fernando Autori, singing Mefistofele, is clearest. The devil, they say, has the best tunes; he certainly has the best voice – and, judging by this performance, was a good actor, all ferocious geniality and a wicked laugh. It’s not surprising that he had an international career, singing lead bass roles throughout Europe, and creating roles for Giordano, Zandonai and Wolf-Ferrari.

The tenor and soprano don’t fare so well. The recording doesn’t capture their higher notes, making the tops of their voices sound thin and wispy. Giuliano Romanogli’s career was limited to Italy, except for a tour of Switzerland in 1925. He has a strong voice, with impressive high notes in the Act IV terzetto.

Gemma Bosini (Margherita) was a highly regarded operatic soprano. She was the first soprano to record Mimi in Puccini’s La bohème (1917). Her career was based in Italy, but she also performed in South America, North Africa and Spain. I wish I could be more positive about her voice. She has a lot of tremolo, and her performance of the Jewel Song lacks sweetness, probably due to the recording.

The chorus come off worst. Too often they lack incisiveness; the kermesse is messy, while they drop out in the waltz scene.

The Pathé recording of eight years before had the advantage of the Paris Opera chorus, one of the world’s best, and steeped in Gounod. Italian opera had always favoured the individual singer – the star tenor or soprano; few Italian operas other than Aida and Turandot, both in the line of French grand opera, have starring roles for the chorus. Perhaps this is because French opera, as Heine said, is more concerned with social problems and movements, while Italian opera is best at depicting personal passions.

The recording doesn’t measure up to the Pathé, starring Léon Beyle and Jean Noté, let alone the classic 1958 Cluytens (EMI), nearly half a century later, with Nicolai Gedda, Boris Christoff and Victoria de Los Ángeles. They are sung in French, the language in which Gounod composed the opera, and in which it sounds best.

Nick Fuller

Previous review: Göran Forsling



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