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Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Faust (London version, 1864)
Faust – Aljaž Farasin (tenor)
Méphistophélès – Carlo Colombara (bass)
Marguerite – Marjukka Tepponen (soprano)
Valentin – Lucio Gallo (baritone)
Siébel – Diana Haller (mezzo-soprano)
Marthe – Ivana Srbljan (mezzo-soprano)
Brander (Wagner) – Waltteri Torikka (baritone)
Croatian National Theatre in Rijeka – Opera Orchestra and Choir/Ville Matvejeff
rec. 2016, Croatian National Theatre ‘Ivan Zajc’, Rijeka, Croatia
The French libretto and English translation may be accessed online
NAXOS 8.660456-58 [3 CDs: 178:49]

Since the turn of the century studio recordings of standard operas have become a rarity, and a new Faust hasn’t appeared since the 1990s, when there were no less than three. One of those, the Chandos English-language issue from 1999, is of course ruled out for linguistic reasons, even though there are high musical values. Of the other two the EMI set (now on Warner) has a French chorus and orchestra under Michel Plasson with French singers in all the minor roles and Belgian José Van Dam as Méphistophélès plus three Americans with good French: Cheryl Studer, Richard Leech and Thomas Hampson. The Teldec (also on Warner) has Welsh forces under Italian maestro Carlo Rizzi and two Americans (Jerry Hadley and Samuel Ramey), one Italian (Cecilia Gasdia) and one Romanian (Alexandru Agache) in the leading roles and only one French singer among the minor roles. If we look further back in recording history the situation is similar with international singers in the central roles and sometimes French-speakers in the supporting roles. Admittedly several of the ‘stars’ are fluent in French, Nicolai Gedda and Victoria de los Angeles for instance, whose second recording with André Cluytens has claims to still be one of the first recommendations, despite being made 60 years ago and with less than first class sound quality.

This new recording, set down three years ago in Rijeka in Croatia, cannot boast any specific French credentials but is none the worse for that. With a Finnish conductor, two Finnish, two Italian, two Croatian and one Slovenian soloist the ensemble constitutes a truly international mix. The recording is lifelike and atmospheric and I believe one important factor is the acoustics of the beautiful Rijeka National Theatre, built in 1885. Ville Matvejeff, who is principal guest conductor and music advisor for the Rijeka National Opera House, knows the acoustics and the orchestra inside out which is an excellent basis for a good performance. He conducts a stringent and rhythmically alert performance, free from oversentimental sweetness and gives due weight to the dark sides of the score, notably the Walpurgis Night in act V. At the same time he is lenient to the singers and the pacing throughout feels absolutely right, never sluggish, never pushing ahead unduly, in other words it’s a reading free from idiosyncrasies. The playing and singing of the choral and orchestral forces is excellent and well on a par with what more prestigious opera houses can deliver

And the solo singing is also on an exalted level, even though not all the names are well-known. Aljaž Farazin is currently principal tenor in the house and had recently added Faust to his repertoire when the recording was made. Initially I thought he lacks the elegance one expects from a good Faust, but he has heft, glow and brilliance up high and when we reach the third act and his cavatina (CD 2 tr. 3) there is no doubt that he has the measure for it. The high C glows effortlessly. Later on in the act (CD 2 tr. 11) the duet with Marguerite is sensitively sung and the voices blend beautifully. Where he seems a bit uncomfortable is in the drinking song in the Walpurgis scene (CD 3 tr. 13) but he manages it with flying colours even so.

I was eagerly looking forward to hearing Marjukka Tepponen, whom I heard as a wonderful Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi in Helsinki some years ago. We have to wait until well into act II, when Marguerite appears in full-length, but there she shows her mettle with lovely restrained singing in the Roi de Thulé aria (CD 2 tr. 6) with the beautiful voice conjuring up a sense of vulnerability. Very touching! This is followed by a glittering Jewel Song (CD 2 tr. 7) with secure trills. Further on she is just as innocent and vulnerable in the scene with the spinning-wheel, and the ecstasy of Marguerite in the concluding prison scene is tangible. Her singing in the trio is also wonderful.

I had expected Carlo Colombara’s Méphistophélès to be magnificent and so he turned out to be. Le veau d’or (CD 1 tr. 7) is of course a show piece that seldom goes wrong and his larger-than-life reading is magnificent, and his diabolic laughter in the serenade (CD 3 tr. 8) is spine-chilling. But he is great throughout, black-voiced and dramatic. His voice is still in fine fettle, even though there are some signs of wear, not least in the church scene, but he is strong and magnificent and he snarls convincingly.

The veteran in the ensemble, Lucio Gallo, made his debut in the mid-1980s and has appeared on all the great stages around the operatic world. One can’t disregard some signs of ageing – and Valentin is supposed to be a young man – but his powers are still undiminished and he sings Avant de quitter ces lieux (CD 1 tr. 6) with a good legato. When he returns from the war in act IV he is scarred and disillusioned, strong and soldier-like. His death-scene is touching but lacks the last ounce of French elegance. Of the minor roles Ivana Srbljan is an expressive Marthe, singing with ‘face’ and Diana Haller is an excellent Siebél and delivers a delicious Romance (CD 2 tr. 1) at the beginning of act III. Waltteri Torikka, a singer I’ve also encountered in Helsinki, has few opportunities to make his mark in the rather ungrateful role of Wagner but he has some lines in the students’ chorus at the beginning of act II.

The overall impression of the recording is utterly positive. In as crowded a field as the discography of Faust, any newcomer has to face competition from some of the world’s greatest conductors and singers. On my personal short-list of recordings – limited to studio-made stereo recordings – I have, in chronological order: André Cluytens (los Angeles, Gedda, Christoff); Gianfranco Rivoli (Alarie, Simoneau, Rehfuss); Colin Davis (Te Kanawa, Araiza, Nesterenko); Michel Plasson (Studer, Leech, Van Dam); Carlo Rizzi (Gasdia, Hadley, Ramey). This newcomer doesn’t oust any of those but can proudly be added to the list and I’m convinced that I will return to it with confidence, most of all for Marjukka Tepponen’s lovely Marguerite but also for the overall excellence.

Göran Forsling

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