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Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Faust (1859 version)
Faust – Benjamin Bernheim (tenor)
Marguerite – Veronique Gens (soprano)
Méphistophélès – Andrew Foster-Williams (bass-baritone)
Valentin – Jean-Sébastien Bou (baritone)
Siebel – Juliette Mars (mezzo-soprano)
Wagner / Un Mendiant – Anas Séguin (baritone)
Dame Marthe – Ingrid Perruche (soprano)
Flemish Radio Choir
Les Talens Lyriques/Christophe Rousset
rec. 2018, Salle Gramont du Conservatoire Jean-Baptiste Lully de Puteaux; Théâtre des Champs-Élysées
Libretto with English translations enclosed
BRU ZANE BZ1037 [3 CDs: 174:28]

“Version 1859” says the header to this latest recording of Gounod’s Faust, possibly implying that this is the Ur-text, representing what it must have sounded like at the premiere at the Théâtre Lyrique on the Boulevard du Temple in Paris on 19 March 1859. But that is not the full truth. It is true that the original version was an Opéra-Comique (i.e. with spoken dialogue instead of recitatives) and this has been retained, with the positive effect that a couple of the characters have become much more important. This concerns Wagner, who in the 1869 version commonly performed today, is more or less marginalized but here stands out as a central character. It also concerns Marthe, who here stands out as a true tragicomic role and thus a much more rounded character. Besides this there are several scenes performed as melodrama (i.e. text spoken over a discreet musical background), which wasn’t very common in the tradition.

Another difference is several musical numbers that are “missing”: you wait in vain for Méphisto’s “Le veau d’or” – instead you get “Chanson de Maître Scarabée”, a song about a beetle that obviously was Gounod’s original concept. It is a good enough piece, which is nice to have, though it can’t quite compare with the replacement. Siebel’s romance “Si le bonheur” was also a late addition; here we get “Versez vos chagrins dans mon âme”, which was cut before the premiere. There are other changes as well, including the initial version of the “Jewel Song”, which has a full reprise of the “Ah! Je ris de me voir si belle” section before the coda. But there are additions as well, music that has never before been employed in a performance of Faust and some of it newly orchestrated, so not even Gounod himself ever heard it in completed form. So in effect this is not the Ur-Faust but a quite different Faust that is far from Gounod’s basic ideas but none the worse for that. It is a valid reconstructions that in many places sheds new light on the masterpiece we all thought we knew – even though it can never supplant the today accepted 1869 version. What is closer than ever to the original is the orchestral sound. The orchestra play on period instruments and the resulting sound is that much more distinct, more transparent in the same way that we experienced Bach’s Brandenburg concertos when we first heard them in Wenzinger’s epoch-making recordings in the early 1950s. There is a freshness that definitely places this recording in the ‘historical’ category, and this is something to be grateful for – even though we may not always want to hear the music that way.

But the most essential for any new recording is still the quality of the singing, and in this respect this cast comes up against legendary singers from several earlier – and present-day – generations. What we notice is that Marthe is not the fruity contralto we have been used to hearing, but a rather bright soprano which gives the role a lighter touch – and Ingrid Perruche is well inside the role. Generally there is a corresponding youthfulness about the whole cast. Méphisto is a true bass-baritone and Andrew Foster-Williams makes him less of the formidable demonic stentorian basso profondo and more of the ironic jester – without in any way underplaying the character’s otherworldly abode. His diabolic laughter in the serenade is truly abominable. Jean-Sébastien Bou’s Valentin sings well, even though he is denied his Avant de quitter ces lieux, which of course was specifically composed for Charles Santley when he sang the role at Her Majesty's Theatre in London in 1864. Anas Séguin is a worthy Wagner and Juliette Mars is marvellous in both her arias. But what makes this recording a worthy competitor to established favourites is the singing of the two central characters. While some recordings of Faust feature a light coloratura Marguerite, Rousset has, in line with the composer’s wishes, opted for a more powerful and more mature singer, and Veronique Gens in my mind seems the ideal answer to those wishes. Mature she certainly is but here she seems rejuvenated and sings with a beauty of tone and freshness of approach that is irresistible. Her King of Thule and Jewel Song has rarely been sung with such warmth and such conviction. I have long admired her both as a recitalist and opera artist, but here she surpasses herself. And she is partnered by a Faust who matches her in soft lyricism and sensitive phrasing. Benjamin Bernheim seems to be the answer to a long-cherished dream of a worthy successor to Leopold Simoneau and Nicolai Gedda in this repertoire. Roberto Alagna is the closest so far but Bernheim’s Salut! demeure is even more masterly with a heavenly high C sung pianissimo. Elsewhere he sports a brilliance in the upper regions that the super-lyrical Simoneau couldn’t quite muster. He seems set out for a great career and Deutsche Grammophon have recently signed an exclusive contract with him and his debut recital is to be released in early November 2019. These two singers’ achievements alone should make this issue an obligatory purchase for lovers of good singing. The value of the issue is further enhanced by the lavish documentation – as always with this series from The Palazzetto Bru Zane housed, together with the discs, in a hardback book comprising 180 pages.

For the unique experience to hear a lot of previously unheard music by Gounod and the sense of the original Opéra-Comique tradition in excellent readings and excellent singing and playing of all involved, this is a recording that should be in the collection of every admirer of this opera.

Göran Forsling

Previous review: Michael Cookson

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