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– tekijä: Charles Gounod

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Charles Gounod (1818–1893)

Opera in five acts

Libretto: Jules Barbier & Michel Carré after Goethe

Faust – Nicolai Gedda
Marguerite – Victoria de los Angeles
Méphistophélès – Boris Christoff

Valentin – Jean Borthayre
Siebel – Martha Angelici
Marthe – Solange Michel
Wagner – Robert Jeantet

Orchestre et Choeurs du Théâtre National de l’Opéra
André Cluytens

Recorded: 30 April – 5 June 1953, Salle de la Mutualité, Paris.

Brilliant Classics, 2009. 3CD. 52’27+50’01+73’56. Liner notes by Richard Lawrence. Digital remastering, 1994 (EMI). Cover: The Fatal Hour by Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard (1780–1850).

CD 1: Acts 1 & 2
CD 2: Act 3
CD 3: Acts 4 & 5


This 1953 recording is only for collectors. The same principal singers, the same conductor, the same orchestra and the same choir made a stereo remake in superior sound for the same label only five years later. The sound here is not just mono, but not the best mono at that. It is clean enough and well-balanced in the relatively quiet moments, but when bigger volume is required by orchestra, choir and singers – “Le veau d’or”, the Church Scene, the Walpurgis Night – the sonic limitations (poor dynamics, loss of detail) become obvious. That said, unless you’re addicted to digital recordings, this mono is quite listenable. It is not entirely devoid of ambience.

In any case, the performance is exceptional enough to make the sound defects almost negligible. The interpretations of the three principals are pretty much the same as in 1958, and it’s hard to see how they could be improved. Only Nicolai Gedda, I believe, had not sung his role on the stage before this recording, but it would be hard to guess this by his unaffectedly lyrical, tonally alluring and word-perfect singing. He was only 27 at the time and in the beginning of a long and illustrious career, just by the way becoming one of the finest Fausts of his time. The Spanish soprano Victoria de los Angeles, though not much older (born 1 November 1923), was already a veteran Marguerite in Paris, having sung the role there for the first time in 1949. No wonder she conveys so well the innocence and pathos of this genuinely tragic heroine.

As for Boris Christoff, I have to disagree with Carlo Curami and Maurizio Modugno, the authors of the most authoritative study of his life and work, who consider this recording the better one because in 1958 Boris returned to the studio with some reluctance. Well, to my ears, the remake is more incisive dramatically and just as stunning vocally, with no traces of reluctance. But the earlier performance still smokes the competition with a vengeance. This is a grand, imposing Mephisto, larger than life and death taken together, in stupendous voice under perfect control. Boris had sung the part only a few times in 1950, but he already had the Devil’s number. There are countless minor differences between this recording and the remake (e.g. in the beginning of the second stanza of “Le veau d’or”), but it would be tedious and pointless to dwell on them. I wouldn’t want to be without either performance.

André Cluytens suffers most from the sound, but even this cannot obscure the flair and subtlety of his conducting. One doesn’t often find an operatic conductor who can squeeze everything from a score without ruining the music or spoiling the singing. In the ballet music, Cluytens can stand comparison with Karajan (who recorded it three times as an orchestral showpiece), and I can pay him no greater compliment. All minor parts are sung by different singers compared to the remake, but they all acquit themselves admirably. Jean Borthayre, a name completely unknown to me, may not have the gorgeous tone of Ernest Blanc, but he is an excellent Valentin all the same. Poor casting of Siebel, Marthe or Wagner cannot ruin the opera, but this is not case here anyway.

All in all, a recording that has been justly overshadowed by the stereo remake but can still afford a lot of pleasure to collectors (or newcomers to the opera, for that matter). Many thanks to Brilliant Classics for having released it at a price hard to resist, although I’m not sure it is still available. The liner notes are just a brief synopsis and of course there is no libretto, but that is to be expected. The EMI remastering probably has the best sound that can be achieved with the original tapes. This EMI edition from 1994, the only “official” one on CD, I think, is nowadays scarce and pricey. ( )
  Waldstein | Feb 20, 2018 |
Charles Gounod (1818–1893)

Opera in five acts

Libretto: Jules Barbier & Michel Carré after Goethe

Faust – Nicolai Gedda
Marguerite – Victoria de los Angeles
Méphistophélès – Boris Christoff

Valentin – Ernest Blanc
Siebel – Liliane Berton
Marthe – Rita Gorr
Wagner – Victor Autran

Orchestre et Choeurs du Théâtre National de l’Opéra
André Cluytens

Recorded: September & Octorber 1958, Salle de la Mutualité, Paris; December 1958, Église Saint-Roch, Paris (Act 4, Scene 1).

EMI Classics, 2003. Great Recordings of the Century. 3 CD. 50.51+48.39+72.52. Newly remastered. Full libretto (Fr+Eng+Ger). Photos. Liner notes by Richard Osborne.

CD 1: Acts 1 & 2
CD 2: Act 3
CD 3: Acts 4 & 5


Every time when I listen to this opera I cannot help feeling that Gounod is rather a mediocre composer. Of course this is subjective and, what’s more, relative. If you compare him to Meyerbeer, you can hardly fail to be impressed by Gounod’s melodic gift and subtle characterisation. But if you compare him to Verdi, Wagner, Mozart or Puccini – that is another matter. Then Gounod sounds derivative and dull.

As operatic adaptations of literary classics go, Gounod’s Faust is pretty well done. The plot if not the depth of the first part of Goethe’s tragedy is retained in the libretto. Faust is a whiny middle-aged prick rather than a disillusioned scholar of tragic potential. Mephistopheles is a rather ordinary practical joker. There is no Faustian deal really, much less one of cosmic importance. The dialogue is far less bawdy and metaphysical. In spite of all this, the libretto is well constructed, effectively dramatic and does benefit from some ingenious changes. The Song of the Flea, for example, is exchanged for The Song of the Golden Calf. The role of Valentin is expanded to a great effect: his early confrontation with Mephisto (Act 2) makes his late return (Act 4) all the more dramatic. The Church Scene (Act 4) is much expanded and vastly improved from Goethe’s insignificant sketch. The finale in prison, however, is merely more sentimental; Marguerite is less distracted and more lucid than Goethe’s heroine, but the scene is just as hasty and unconvincing.

The music is a mixed bag. The Church Scene (Act 4) and the Golden Calf Song together with the cross spell (Act 2) are powerful scenes of genuine musical and dramatic inspiration. The first meeting between Faust and Marguerite (Act 2) is delightful, but the two love duets (Acts 3 & 5) are only slightly above the average nineteenth-century stuff in this department. The two well-known arias for tenor and soprano, Faust’s “Salut” and Marguerite’s “Jewel Song” respectively, are conventional almost to the point of boredom. The famous Waltz (Act 2), which Liszt completely transformed in his piano paraphrase, and the Soldiers’ Chorus (Act 4) are simply pedestrian. The opera is nowhere near as slow-paced as you might have heard, but only the greatest performance can make me sit through all 170 minutes of it.

And this is one. Whatever reservations I may have about Gounod’s talent or his most famous work, I have none about this recording. It is very close to perfection. Both the singers and the conductor knew the score intimately. Virtually the same cast had made a studio recording of the opera in 1953, though in mono sound inferior even for those ancient times. (The stereo remake is a great sonic improvement, as it was intended to be. The sound’s much cleaner if not very spacious compared to Decca.) Also worth noting, by 1958 the three principals had already sung their parts on the stage.

Boris Christoff has always been, and remains, a controversial Méphistophélès. If it is suave elegance that you want, he is not your Devil. Try Siepi, Ramey, or even Ghiaurov. If you fancy a menacing Mephisto in booming voice, then try Christoff. Personally for me, as in so many other cases, Boris has spoiled all other Devils. They invariably sound bland and boring to me.

In the spooky Church Scene, in which Gounod all but surpassed himself, Boris is positively terrifying. I have never heard any other bass approach this level of infernal splendour. It is a mistake, however, to claim that his performance lacks completely elegance. The sinister benediction in Act III (“Il était temps!... O nuit, étends sur eux ton ombre!”) and the famous serenade in Act IV (“Qu'attendez-vous encore?... Vous qui faites l'endormie”) are supreme examples of expressive legato. Much of the part is not so much sung as dramatically recited, and there Boris pretty much (again!) overshadows everybody else with his superb diction. I have heard a good deal of complaining about his French, but I can’t say it bothers me.

The rest of the cast is secondary to me, but that’s no reason to neglect it. Victoria de los Angeles is a lovely Marguerite. The role was one of her specialties, and you can easily hear why. She has just the right voice to convey Marguerite’s youth, innocence and modesty. The late Nicolai Gedda, who died less than two months ago at the age of 91, was very much in his prime in 1958. He is an ardent and stylish Faust, blissfully free from the mannerisms that sometimes affected his performances (e.g. his Pinkerton for Karajan in La Scala, 1955), and more than a match for the tonal beauty of his Marguerite. Ernest Blanc is often neglected in this exalted company. There is no reason why he should be except that his role is small. The man is in the possession of a beautiful baritone, and he sings every single phrase with impeccable taste.

The presentation is typically lavish for the Great Recordings of the Century series. The booklet (in slipcase together with the jewel case) contains the full libretto in three languages together with rare photos from the recording sessions. Richard Osborne does an excellent job on the background of the opera, but he is rather superficial about the singers; even more so about Cluytens whose eloquent and dramatic conducting deserves a lot more than “dependable”.

Personal Postscript

I have so often been disappointed with EMI, with their sound, presentation or market decisions, that it's a pleasure to record, if posthumously, my gratitude for their customer service. For I received this set as a gift from them. I wrote and told them I had a problem with some strange noises towards the end of the second disc from Boris Christoff's recording of Boris Godunov released in the same series. Could they do something about that? They replied with a request to send them the complete set, and they would see what they could do. Though suspicious by nature, I complied with this rather unusual request. Sometime later they wrote and said they were sorry, but there was nothing they could do about the Godunov problem. They offered compensation, though. What would I like? Gounod’s Faust with Boris Christoff, I said promptly. Much to my surprise, I was sent a brand new set soon after that. And, of course, I got my own Boris Godunov back. Thank you, EMI. That was a classy act.

Further notes on the relationship with Goethe’s original [February 2018]

First, let’s credit the translators. The libretto is quoted from the booklet where it is translated by one B. Vierne. The lines from Goethe’s Faust come from the translation of John R. Williams (Wordsworth Classics, 2007).

Second, it’s convenient to have an overview of the opera before beginning:

Act 1: Mephisto appears to Faust, deal sealed
Act 2: Valentin goes to war, Mephisto sings “Le veau d’or”, Faust and Marguerite meet
Act 3: arias and love duet of Faust and Marguerite
Act 4, Scene 1: Church Scene
Act 4, Scene 2: Valentin’s Death
Act 5, Scene 1: Walpurgis Night
Act 5, Scene 2: Prison Scene

Act 1 is straight from Goethe, albeit quite a bit abridged and diluted. Faust sounds like an actor who plays the disillusioned scholar rather than the genuine article. And the script is not exactly profound. He complains, curses and considers suicide in the manner of an angry teenager with severe hormonal imbalance: “A curse on you, O human pleasures”. He signs the infernal deal for a “mad orgy of the heart and senses”, a rather superficial idea of “the whole experience of humankind” (1771) for which Goethe’s (anti)hero yearns.

Act 2 is a most ingenious mixture of original invention, creative rearrangement and verbatim repetition. It is evidently based on the scene in the Auerbach’s cellar (2073-336), but it is much less ribald and turned into a large party outdoors. The introduction of Valentin that early is a brilliant idea of the librettists. He has a faithful encounter with Mephisto and his deep love for his sister is made clear. Goethe should have thought of that, too, instead of introducing Gretchen’s brother merely to curse the poor girl and die. The cross spell is another invention of the librettists; very effective in the context. The charming first meeting between Faust and Gretchen happens one scene later in the play, but here it is neatly telescoped and copied word for word:

My lovely young lady, will you not allow me
to offer you my arm and escort you on your way?

No thank you, sir; I am neither a lady, nor lovely,
and I really have no need for a supporting arm!

[Goethe, 2605-8:]
Fair lady, you are all alone;
May I take your arm and see you home?

I’m not a lady, nor am I fair,
And I can find my own way there.

Act 3 is the weakest in the whole opera. It is almost entirely dedicated to the Faust-Marguerite romance, but I have never found their famous arias and love duet especially compelling. Dramatically, if not musically, the act is well done. It keeps close to the original save for the usual amount of abridgement and bowdlerising, most notably in the hilarious scene when Mephisto informs Martha of her husband’s death. And, of course, you won’t find the lovers discussing religion here, as they do in Goethe (3413-68).

But the only major change is Siebel, one of the party animals from the previous act, who is turned into Valentin’s friend and Marguerite’s suitor. He is largely superfluous, his only purpose being to inform Valentin on his return what he will presently learn anyway. It would have made more sense if Marguerite rejects Siebel’s advances, as if to confirm our hopes she isn’t promiscuous, but this never happens. Curiously enough, considering Goethe was anything but prude, the opera leaves less doubt that the lovers are indeed lovers.

Act 4 is the finest in the whole opera. The Church Scene is the only case where the opera is superior to the play. In both cases Gretchen/Marguerite swoons at the end, but otherwise the scenes could not have been more different. Goethe’s version (3776-834) is a short meeting between Gretchen and one Evil Spirit. Despite a choir singing “Dies irae”, the scene is undramatic and forgettable. The opera turns this inauspicious episode into a tremendous clash between Heaven and Hell in the faces of Mephisto and, indirectly, through Marguerite’s prayers, God. The text is simple but powerful, and the music touches the sublime. When performed well by bass and soprano of considerable resources, together with fine choir, organ and conductor, the scene is mesmerising. Alas, it seldom comes off that well in performance.

Valentin’s death is also musically and dramatically superb, almost as fine as in the play. Of course, it is considerably toned down – you won’t find Valentin addressing the ladies as “you slut” (Gretchen, 3752) and “you scrawny pimp, you shameful bawd” (Martha, 3767) – but that is a small price to pay for one of Gounod’s finest strokes of inspiration.

Act 5 is a bit of a mixed bag. The Walpurgis Night is shorter and better, less rambling and more intense, but the ballet in the middle holds the action for good 15 minutes. This is not a good thing. The Prison Scene could and should have been superior to the rushed and almost incoherent ending of the play, but in fact the libretto is only more melodramatic and the music is positively pedestrian. Neither Gounod nor his librettists scaled again the heights of the Church Scene. ( )
  Waldstein | Feb 19, 2017 |
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» Lisää muita tekijöitä

Tekijän nimiRooliTekijän tyyppiKoskeeko teosta?Tila
Charles Gounodensisijainen tekijäkaikki painoksetcalculated
Boris ChristoffMephistophelespäätekijäeräät painoksetvahvistettu
Corelli, FrancoFaustpäätekijäeräät painoksetvahvistettu
Ghiaurov, NicolaiMephistophelespäätekijäeräät painoksetvahvistettu
Bonynge, RichardConductormuu tekijäeräät painoksetvahvistettu
Sutherland, Joanmuu tekijäeräät painoksetvahvistettu

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