Andante – Gounod’s Faust: A Cornucopia

0 of 5 stars

Faust – Opera in five acts

Version 1 [Recorded 1930, Paris]

Marguerite – Mireille Berthon
Faust – César Vezzani
Méphistophélès – Marcel Journet
Siebel – Marthe Coiffier
Valentin – Louis Musy
Marthe – Jeanne Montfort
Wagner – Michel Cozette

Paris Opera Chorus
Paris Opera Orchestra
Henri Busser

Version 2 [Recorded 1930, Paris]

Marguerite – Germaine Martinelli
Faust – René Lapelletrie
Méphistophélès – José Beckmans
Siebel – Bernadette Lemichel du Roy
Valentin – Charles Cambon
Marthe – Mme. Nidoc
Wagner – Michel Cozette

Orchestre de l’Association des Concerts Lamoureux
Albert Wolff

Arias and Scenes from Faust [Recorded 1927-36]

Maryse Beaujon
Fred Bordon
Charles Cambon
Arthur Endrèze
Yvonne Gall
Fanny Heldy
Julien Lafont
Emma Luart
René Maison
Marthe Nespoulos
André Pernet
Georges Thill
Ninon Vallin
Miguel Villabella

Various orchestras and conductors

Reviewed by: Tim Ashley

Reviewed: October 2002
CD No: ANDANTE 69948 73995 2
(4 CDs)

This tremendous set is not so much a standard historical reissue as a vast, aural study of Gounod’s Faust, as it would have been heard in France in the years between the First and Second World Wars. It contains Henri Busser’s 1930 HMV Paris Opera recording of (more or less) the complete work (including the ballet music), together with Albert Wolff’s abridged version (roughly two-fifths of the score) issued by Polydor the same year. Both performances are supplemented by a disc’s worth of extracts recorded between 1927 and 1936, and the whole effectively forms a monumental survey of what is usually described as ’the French performing tradition’, a tradition widely perceived as having been fatally undermined by the time of the mid-1950s.

Since neither version (despite their occasional lapses in text and casting) has been matched by any post-war recording, it might be as well to establish just what made the French performing tradition so special and unique. Language, of course, had everything to do with it. French music, we are told, invariablysounds better when sung by native speakers. This is not necessarily true, though most singers who don’t speak it as their first language will readily admit that it’s the hardest to master. Those who have done so convincingly are few and far between. In the post-war era Victoria de los Angeles, Nicolai Gedda, Eleanor Steber and Teresa Berganza are among the handful of names that spring immediately to mind. In the inter-war period, the phenomenon was similarly rare.

The only non-native speaker on these discs is the American baritone Arthur Endrèze, heard as both Valentin and Méphistophélès – and he sounds as authentically French as one would wish. Just as important as the ability to get the language right, however, was the ability to integrate sound and sense by singing off the text as well as the notes. Diction and verbal nuance were of paramount importance. Play any track from these discs, and you will not only hear every word, but you will hear it given meaning, even in the most complex choral passages, a phenomenon not replicated in modern recordings, however well they may be sung. This phenomenon wasn’t, however, uniquely French. Italian and German recordings from the same period have comparable characteristics, which is why many prefer Serafin’s inter-war Verdi or Lotte Lehmann’s Strauss to more recent versions. After 1950, or so, diction became less prized. Toscanini notoriously objected to Callas because he couldn’t hear every word. Sutherland’s often-wordless vocalism would have been unthinkable in 1930.

In some respects, however, the most important aspect of the French tradition lay in the fact that the major opera houses were primarily ensemble companies. Great though many of the singers on these discs are, few of them had major international careers. Only Marcel Journet (Busser’s Méphistophélès), Fanny Heldy and René Maison (Marguerite and Faust in some extracts) were successful abroad. Journet sang at Covent Garden from 1897. Heldy, admired by Toscanini, was at La Scala from 1923. Maison, who like Heldy was Belgian, emigrated to the USA in 1935 and became a Met regular. Abroad, Heldy significantly restricted herself to the French repertoire, though Journet and Maison also sang Verdi, Wagner and Russian music. Georges Thill and Ninon Vallin, meanwhile, remain, for many, the definitive interpreters of French opera, though their reputations were based solely on performances in France and their handful of recordings.

As it is with diction, so too the high quality of ensemble performance – total dramatic integration complete with each singer betraying an instinctual understanding of what the others are doing – is apparent on every track of these discs. There could, however, be occasional drawbacks in that ensemble values sometimes took precedence over vocal excellence or appropriateness. This becomes apparent in Busser’s recording when we hear Berthon’s Marguerite, her voice shallow and soubrette-ish, more than once coming adrift pitch-wise above the stave – particularly when she gets to ’Anges purs’, where Gounod, to generate dramatic tension, ratchets the key a semitone upwards with each repetition. Interpretatively there are, of course, telling insights – real hysteria when she finally recognises Méphistophélès’s true demonic nature, an erotic shriek, earlier on, as she yields to Faust’s seduction which mutates into a yell of despair when taunted by Mephistopheles in the Church Scene.

Louis Musy’s Valentin, comparably, reveals a voice past its best, with some effortful high notes, and more than a few phrases cut short, though he makes for a credible military man and hints at an obsessive, solicitous quality in Valentin’s devotion to his sister. Journet’s Méphistophélès, however, is matchless. He was in his mid-sixties when the recording was made and there are occasional moments when you’re conscious of a decline in his vocal powers, though he makes the character uniquely complex. He’s charming to the point of seductiveness in his opening scenes with Faust, witty yet cowardly in his dealings with Valentin and the soldiers, supremely malevolent both when left to his own devices and when he senses that Faust’s growing moral awareness is causing him to pull away from him.

Faust is sung by the Corsican tenor César Vezzani, in another great performance. His voice, not unlike Franco Corelli’s, is big dark and handsome, though there are wonderful subtleties here. He grows audibly younger when Méphistophélès restores his youth. Faced with Marguerite, he’s sexy, almost animalistic, a prey to unthinking desire.

Busser’s conducting, meanwhile, is flawlessly judged and paced, immaculately controlled over the work’s vast span and giving no indication at any point that the opera was laboriously recorded in chunks to fit on twenty 78 discs. Much of it is also extremely erotic, belying modern ideas of Faust as a work essentially founded on prurient codes of bourgeois sexual morality. Information on Busser’s choice of edition, however, seems surprisingly scant. Textual confusion abounds about Faust. Gounod added and subtracted material to and from the opera over a ten-year period after the first performance in 1859, without ever producing what he considered to be a definitive score. It’s possible that what we have here is a version traditionally used at the Paris Opera around 1930. Busser was, however, well known as an editor (the orchestral version of Debussy’s Printemps is his: so is the standard performing edition of Adam’s ballet Giselle) and some of the choice and order of material may well be his own. There are cuts in Act II, and the Act III prelude is missing, probably because it would have necessitated the addition of an extra one-sided disc to the original set.

The Walpurgisnacht scene, meanwhile, comes more than complete, with concert-version endings tacked onto some of the dances, though Busser omits in its entirety the scene between Marguerite and Siebel that most conductors now place at the start of Act IV. The usual order of the two final scenes of the same act has been reversed, so that the Church Scene immediately follows the love duet, where the effect of the juxtaposition is electrifying.

That this may well have been standard practice at the time is suggested by Albert Wolff’s version, which broadly follows the same running order. There are many, myself included, who would choose this performance as their ’desert island Faust,’ maddening though the abridgement is. The idea behind it was to get as much of the opera onto five 78rpm discs as possible, which meant not only the inevitable omission of huge stretches of the score, but also cuts within the material included as well. Many nowadays would probably prefer fewer, longer extracts, and some will doubtless be infuriated by the whole thing – but, as with Robert Heger’s famous abridged 1933 recording of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, most serious admirers of the opera would rather have it than nothing at all.

The principal reason for its success lies in the cast, which is the most consistent and dramatically integrated ever assembled in a studio for the work, even though certain individual achievements are surpassed elsewhere. Neither Lapelletrie (Faust) nor Beckmans (Méphistophélès) quite matches Vezzani or Journet in subtlety, though they run them close. Lapelletrie’s voice, like Vezzani’s, is big and essentially heroic, though he hasn’t got his rival’s knack of being able to swivel vocally between age and youth, while his seduction of Marguerite is calculated rather than unthinking. Beckmans, more emphatic than Journet, is also much more obviously demonic, hectoring rather than luring Faust into signing his pact, very sinister towards the end, particularly in the Church Scene where he compensates for a couple of lapses in pitch with a genuinely terrifying delivery of the text.

That the scene itself has such power is also due the extraordinary Marguerite of Germaine Martinelli. As with Journet’s Mephistopheles, her performance offers a unique experience not duplicated elsewhere. The role is usually taken by a lyric soprano, presumably on the assumption that the focal points are the bravura of the ’Jewel Song’ and the tenderness of the love scenes. This is to forget, however, that Marguerite must also be able to convey remorse, psychological disintegration and madness, and in Martinelli we have essentially a dramatic soprano capable of encompassing every facet. Her vocal amplitude and the grand sweep of her phrasing is telling in throughout, while her way with words is matchless. Listen, for instance, to the moment in which she dismisses ’pauvreSiebel,’ with a mixture of humour and compassion. She also presents Marguerite as more knowing than any other interpreter, revelling with sensual delight in the thought of decking herself out with Méphistophélès’s jewels, very erotic in her moonlit apostrophe to Faust. If you want to hear ’the great French tradition’ at its best, her performance is one starting point as is Cambon’s Valentin, less gruff than Musy, but sung with effortless beauty and great tenderness. Wolff gives a darker, more melancholic account of the score than Busser (a quality reinforced by the abridgement), and also has, marginally, the better orchestra and chorus.

For many, the main interest of the extracts disc will doubtless bethe chance to hear Thill and Vallin as Faust and Marguerite, roles they never recorded complete, or, it would seem, together. Thill is paired with the declamatory Marthe Nespoulos in the Garden Scene and the more lyrical Maryse Beaujon for the finale, the Méphistophélès in both instances being the rather woofy Fred Bordon. Vallin, meanwhile, is cast opposite Maison (fabulous, asalways, as Faust) and the cavernous-sounding Julien Lafont. Thill is, of course, vocally beautiful and effortless – his pianissimo top C at the end of ’Salut, demeure chaste et pure’ is breathtaking – but he’s also the most conventionally Romantic of the Fausts included here, sounding genuinely in love with his various Marguerites, not nearly as seductive as either Vezzani or Lapelletrie. Vallin’s famously smoky tone makes for a ’Jewel Song’ that rivals Martinelli’s in sexiness and an equally intense outpouring of emotion in the opera’s closing pages, though we don’t get the Church Scene, which is a shame.

Among the other singers featured on the extracts disc, Heldy – a natural Manon rather than a Marguerite – sounds sugary and disappoints. Emma Luart has something of Martinelli’s verbal force, though not her vocal steadiness. Endrèze is much happier as Valentin than as Méphistophélès, where you’re very conscious that this is a baritone singing a bass’s music. André Pernet, on the other hand, is very dirty and suggestive in ’Méphistophélès’s Serenade’ and makes you want to hear more. We also, mercifully, get the chance to hear the wonderful Cambon ’sin’ music cut from Wolff’s version.

The transfers are impressive. Unlike many historical labels, Andante’s policy is to eliminate comparatively little surface noise on the grounds that to do so would also eliminate much of the original vocal and orchestral resonance – the dividends are enormous. Wolff’s Polydor engineers were clearly more technically advanced in 1930 than their HMV counterparts since he gets a much warmer recording, whereas Busser loses some orchestral detail. Given Andante’s scholarly reputation, however, some of the accompanying material could be better. The libretto is given in English, French and German, but printed consecutively rather than in parallel. The French text is printed complete (you have to manoeuvre though the cuts) and purports to be a critical edition, though some of Marthe’s lines in the Garden Scene are ascribed to Marguerite. Many of the extensive accompanying essays are fascinating, though Andante are producing their operatic issues in tandem with the “Grove Dictionary of Opera”, from which a synopsis has been extracted that doesn’t tally with Busser’s edition, let alone Wolff’s.

These are minor quibbles, however. Listening to this set is ultimately an overwhelming experience that, above all, restores your faith in the work itself. Gounod’s Faust has been downgraded in the last fifty years or so as the fortunes of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust, Liszt’s Faust Symphony and Boito’s Mefistofele have drastically improved. The decline of the French tradition is doubtless a contributory factor, but to hear Gounod’s Faust done properly, as here, is to be reminded that it remains one of the most remarkable operas ever penned.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content