Charles Gounod had three opera theatres to choose from when he shopped out his Faust in 1859 Paris. At that point he had three operas in his short resume: Sapho, La none sanglante and Le médecin malgré lui, all three of which had had reasonable runs.
Gounod decided, or perhaps it was decided for him through an offer he could not refuse that the Théâtre Lyrique would be the venue for his new work. The offer came with strings attached: Madame Carvalho, the homely-looking and not very talented wife of the Théâtre Lyrique’s impresario had to sing Marguerite, and the new opera had to have spoken dialogue.
Gounod acquiesced and Faust had its not so easy birth on a stage of a theater with inadequate technical facilities and an audience spoiled by second-rate light operas by equally second-rate composers and ill-suited translations into French of some works by a few important foreign composers.
Gounod and his brainchild survived the ordeal and some years later, after revisions, additions, deletions and the dropping of the original spoken dialogue and its substitution with recitatives, Faust had a rebirth in the shape that is now familiar to us.
All for the better I say, for the story of the aging philosopher’s pact with Méphistophélès sadled with spoken dialogue would have stayed as an occasional revival in French theaters and nothing more.
So, what is so interesting about the original 1859 Faust now in a new release from the joint French label Palazzetto/Bru Zane is merely its rarity. Missing is one of the opera’s best-known pieces, Valentin’s Avant de quitter ce lieux, here replaced by an unmemorable duet for Valentin and Marguerite. There’s also a good second aria for Siebel, and lots of spoken dialogue, which given its annoying presence forced this listener to fast-track to the next musical number time and again.
The singers are a mixed lot, all very light-voiced, very French sounding, with flawless diction and the men’s typically-Gallic slightly constricted vocal production. Faust is sung by Benjamin Bernheim, a light tenor better suited to the role’s lyrical moments than to the ones requiring more vocal heft.
The Marguerite is Veronique Gens, a lyric soprano familiar to most of us from her notable work in French mélodies and Baroque Operas. Here she delivers a youthful-sounding heroine with the agility for a nice Jewel Song and the power to hold her own in the Church Scene and in the final trio.
When it comes to dramatic baritone Andrew Foster Williams the sound needed for the role of Méphistophélès is simply not there. And yes, there is a long line of lean-voiced French high basses who sang the role successfully, unctuousness, humor and elegance making up for decibels. But here neither the elegance of a Pol Plançon or a Marcel Journet, nor the mordant Italian wit of an Italo Tajo nor the massive sound of a Boris Christoff or a Nicolai Ghiaurov are present. We end up with a Devil with a nice-brother Valentin sound.
Both the light-weight Valentin of Jean-Sebastien Bou and the lovely Siebel of Juliette Marx are what’s needed. The choral ensemble and orchestra – Les Talens Lyriques and the Flemish Radio Choir are both very good under the direction of Christophe Rousset, as is the engineering of Jiri Heger. The packaging is elegant, with three CD’s contained in a handsome hard-bound book.
Rafael de Acha http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com