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Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Faust, opera in four acts (version 1859)
French libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, after Goethe
Premiered in its first version with spoken dialogue 19th March 1859 at Théâtre-Lyrique, Paris
Édition: Paul Prévost (L’Opéra français)
Soloists: Benjamin Bernheim, Véronique Gens, Andrew Foster-Williams, Jean-Sébastien Bou, Juliette Mars, Anas Séguin, Ingrid Perruche
Flemish Radio Choir (Martin Robidoux – choir preparation, Thibaud Epp – chorus master)
Les Talens Lyriques/Christophe Rousset
rec. 2018, Salle Gramont of Conservatoire Jean-Baptiste Lully, Puteaux, Paris, live concert performance on 14 June 2018 Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris
Full French libretto with English translation provided in book
Cast & track listing, and book contents at end of review
Opéra français’ (French Opera) series of Bru Zane, Volume 22
BRU ZANE BZ1037 [3 CDs: 174:28]

It may well be regarded as the inauguration of a new era in French opera.”
R.A. Streatfeild on Gounod’s Faust (The Opera: A Sketch of the Development of Opera)

Bru Zane continues its epic French Opéra series with Gounod’s Faust. This 1859 version is presented in four acts with French spoken dialogue, complete with several of the numbers that were later removed or changed. With this recording of Faust, the Bru Zane CD / Book series has reached volume 22, of which I have part of a limited edition of 4,000. Undoubtedly the impetus behind this recording was the bicentenary of Gounod’s birth in 2018.

Gounod, who evidently first encountered Goethe’s Faust in 1838 in its French translation, had mentioned to his brother as early as 1840 that he was planning a Faust opera. After initial arrangements had been made with the director of Théâtre Lyrique in 1856, Gounod set about writing his score. He was using a French libretto prepared by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré from Carré's play Faust et Marguerite, loosely based on Goethe’s Faust, Part One. The première was given in March 1859 at Théâtre Lyrique in Paris to a lukewarm reception. Gounod stated that it ‘did not enjoy an overwhelming success’, although it went on to be performed three hundred and six times at Theatre-Lyrique over the period 1859-1968. Faust was staged in several European countries where it did receive various levels of success. Sometimes the title Faust was changed, notably in Germany it was staged as Margarethe and also Gretchen. Following the bankruptcy of Théâtre Lyrique, numerous changes evolved to the score leading up to its revival in its guise as a French Grand Opéra. That necessitated changes to comply with the conventions of the Paris Opéra company. It was now adapted into five acts, and the spoken dialogue removed. With the addition of a ballet, it was given its Paris Opéra première in March 1869 at Salle Le Peletier. Faust’s great popularity is highlighted that by November 1887 it received its five-hundredth Paris Opéra performance; which Gounod himself conducted.

At the pinnacle of his career with Faust, Gounod achieved international distinction. For more than half a century after its première, it was probably the most popular opera in the repertoire. Gounod’s Faust was in fact the opera selected for the inauguration of the New York Metropolitan Opera House in 1883. Evidently its high frequency of production there led to the frivolous idea, proposed jokingly by the New York music critic William James Henderson, that the Metropolitan Opera House should be renamed the ‘Faustspielhaus’. Whilst no longer distinguished as the number one opera, despite temporary changes in vogue, its status has endured reasonably well. The last time I looked at the list of the current rankings in terms of performances of the most staged operas worldwide, Faust was placed at number thirty-six and the third most popular in France. After a general decline in popularity from after around World War 2, Faust seems to be undergoing a revival in fortunes. Conspicuously, David McVicar’s April 2019 staging at Covent Garden, London was streamed live to cinemas worldwide.

Performances of Faust have evolved in numerous guises, so it is not really appropriate or even conceivable to identify a conclusive ‘final’ or ‘official’ form of the work. It has proved impossible to choose between the composer’s original project and a history of constant transformations. Therefore, this recording cannot be considered definitively as an ‘original’ or ‘first’ version of Faust. It is best described as an 1859 version. The principal difference of this 1859 version of Faust from the commonly encountered 1869 version is the restoration of spoken dialogue, more in keeping with opéra-comique. The sparkling repartee was sacrificed owing to the Grand Opéra convention of the Paris Opéra where spoken dialogue was outlawed. Reinstated here are several musical numbers removed for the 1869 version. Some of them were replaced by different numbers, such as Méphisto’s Chanson de Maître Scarabée and Siebel’s romance Versez vos chagrins dans mon âme! Of those absent from the 1869 version, notable are Valentin’s cavatina Avant de quitter ces lieux, Méphisto’s showpiece air, the diabolical Le veau d'or, and the noted Soldiers’ chorus Gloire immortelle de nos aïeux. Even some music cut from the 1859 version, that Gounod may not even have heard, has been newly orchestrated especially for this recording, due to missing or incomplete orchestration in the score. There are also a number of examples of re-touching of the originals that have been restored, such as the original version of the ‘Jewel Song’ Ah, je ris de me voir. This may all seem complicated, but do not worry. The booklet essays provide extremely detailed explanations.

The predominately French cast has been well chosen. Parisian lyric tenor Benjamin Bernheim excels in the title role of aged philosopher Faust. Convincing from start to finish, he gives a polished and pleasing performance. A stand-out for me is the act two cavatina Salut! demeure chaste et pure with violin accompaniment where Faust idealizes Marguerite as an innocent and beautiful child of nature. Splendidly controlled, Bernheim sings with persuasive romantic feeling. He gives a smooth and warmly expressive performance, soaring persuasively to his top notes. Even more remarkable is that Benjamin Bernheim was a replacement for Jean-François Borras who had to withdraw. As Marguerite, Orléans born soprano Véronique Gens in quite marvellous voice demonstrates her stylish technique and unerring control that combine with an elevated level of expression. Marguerite’s highly demanding act two scene comprising of the ‘Song of the King of Thule’ and ‘Jewel Song’ is exquisitely accomplished. Expressing such generosity of spirit and genuine feeling for the text, Gens generates a stirring sense of drama. With such smooth and even projection, I relish the conclusive glide to her high register. From act two, Faust and Marguerite’s duet Laisse ma main demonstrates such beautiful singing, with an ecstatic feel and an abundance of passion. Extremely moving is their demanding act four duet Ah! c’est la voix du bien-aimé! where they ratchet up the emotional tension so successfully.

In the role of Méphistophélès, English bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams generally sings well, although in the role created for a bass the low tessitura presents some difficulties. He gives an effective performance of Chanson du Scarabée (Song of the Beetle) from act one. Méphisto’s serenade Vous qui faites l'endormie from act three sounds a little unwieldy. From act three, I enjoyed the Scène de l’église (Church Scene) with such a splendid organ part played by François Saint-Yves, although Foster-Williams is troubled by the low range of the writing. Juliette Mars shines brightly throughout in the trouser role of the lovesick Siébel. My highlight is the French mezzo-soprano with Siébel’s romance Versez vos chagrins dans mon âme! from act three. Her voice, with a relatively light creamy tone, projects easily in a composed performance that demonstrates her innate feeling for the text. As soldier Valentin baritone Jean-Sébastien Bou gives an honest contribution. From act three Valentin’s couplets Chaque jour, nouvelle affaire! is effectively sung if a touch workmanlike. Baritone Anas Séguin excels in the small role of Wagner, notably the act one trio À l’étude, ô mon maîtrei She has a rich, smooth and even tone.

The Flemish Radio Choir (thirty-five strong) is in remarkable form. They take full advantage of the stunning range of chorus numbers in the opera, with impressive unity but never at the expense of tonal character. All the choruses are granted first-class performances. I especially admire the act three Soldier’s Chorus Déposons les armes! and the Chorus of Angels Christ est ressuscité! in the conclusion scene Apothéose. Under the expert direction of Christophe Rousset, period instrument orchestra Les Talens Lyriques, comprising here fifty-three players, does not put a foot wrong. Playing gloriously with proficiency and commitment, the orchestra blows off the cobwebs and breathes new life into this one hundred and sixty-year-old opera. It is impossible to single out an individual section of the orchestra for particular praise in this magnificent team performance which is sharp as a whip.

Bru Zane recorded this 1859 version of Faust in Paris principally at the live concert performance given on 14th June 2018 at Théâtre des Champs-Elysées under stage director Marc Paquien. Additional studio recording work was done at Salle Gramont, Conservatoire Jean-Baptiste Lully. The sound quality is first-class, clear, present, with excellent balance. There is very little extraneous sound from the live portions; applause has been removed. The 180-page hardback book contains the usual wealth of information, including a synopsis and full French libretto with an English translation given alongside. In addition, there are five splendidly researched essays. My only grumble is wanting the track listing to contain the respective page number of its place in the libretto.

This 1859 version of Gounod’s masterpiece Faust is an essential purchase for opera lovers and especially those who relish French Romantic Opera.

Michael Cookson

Cast details

Benjamin Bernheim (tenor) – Faust
Véronique Gens (soprano) – Marguerite
Jean-Sébastien Bou (baritone) – Valentin, her brother
Andrew Foster-Williams (bass-baritone) – Méphistophélès (Méphisto)
Juliette Mars (mezzo-soprano) – Siebel, a boy in love with Marguerite
Anas Séguin (baritone) – Wagner, Siebel’s friend / A beggar
Ingrid Perruche (soprano) – Dame Marthe, Marguerite’s neighbour
Ploughman, Gils, Students, Soldiers, Townspeople, Matrons, Witches, Chorus of Angels etc.

Detailed book contents (in French and English, 173 pages)
Alexandre Dratwicki: ‘Creating or recreating the ‘first’ Faust
Gérard Condé: ‘At all times, in all places’
Paul Prévost: ‘The other Faust
Hélène Cao: ‘Goethe’s Faust in Romantic music’
Charles Gounod: ‘Memoirs of an artist – Faust
Synopsis, libretto (French and English), detailed cast listing, including orchestra and choir, detailed track listing with characters

Track list

CD 1 [55:59]
01. Introduction
Act 1
02. Scène: Rien!... En vain j’interroge... (Faust)
03. Chœur, Scène et Dialogue: Ah! Paresseuse fille... (Faust, Siebel, Wagner, Jeunes Filles, Laboureurs)
04. Terzetto: À l’étude, ô mon maître... (Faust, Siebel, Wagner)
05. Mélodrame: L’amour!... La guerre!... (Faust)
06. Évocation et Duo: Maudites soyez-vous... (Faust, Méphistophélès)
07. Suite du Duo: Eh bien! que t’en semble?... (Faust, Méphistophélès)
08. Chœur de la kermesse: Vin ou bière... (Wagner, Un Mendiant, Chœur)
09. Dialogue: Eh bien! Et Valentin?... (Siebel, Wagner, Valentin, Marguerite)
10. Duo: Adieu, mon bon frère! (Marguerite, Valentin)
11. Dialogue: Chère Marguerite ! Allons!... (Valentin, Wagner, Siebel, Méphistophélès)
12. Mélodrame et Chanson du Scarabée: Un rat plus poltron que brave... (Valentin, Wagner, Siebel, Méphistophélès)
13. Mélodrame et Choral des épées: Votre belle voix... (Valentin, Wagner, Siebel, Méphistophélès, Soldats)
14. Dialogue: Serviteur! Je vous revaudrai cela! (Faust, Méphistophélès)
15. Finale. Valse: Ainsi que la brise légère... (Siebel, Faust, Méphistophélès, Marguerite, Chœur)

CD 2 [49:57]
Act 2
01. Prélude et Air: Faites-lui mes aveux (Siebel)
02. Dialogue: Drôle! (Faust, Siebel, Méphistophélès)
03. Cavatine: Salut! demeure chaste et pure... (Faust)
04. Dialogue: Alerte! J’ai aperçu la belle enfant... (Faust, Méphistophélès)
05. Chanson du Roi de Thulé et Air des bijoux: Je voudrais bien savoir... (Marguerite)
06. Dialogue: Seigneur Dieu, que vois-je? (Marthe, Marguerite, Faust, Méphistophélès)
07. Quatuor: Prenez mon bras un moment! (Marthe, Marguerite, Faust, Méphistophélès)
08. Dialogue: Il faut qu’il ait disparu sous terre! (Marthe, Siebel, Méphistophélès, Faust, Marguerite)
09. Duo: Laisse ma main... (Faust, Marguerite)
10. Scène et Finale: Tête folle! (Faust, Marguerite, Méphistophélès)

CD 3 [68:32]
Act 3
01. Prélude
02. Scène et Air du rouet: Elles ne sont plus là! (Marguerite, Jeunes Filles)
03. Dialogue: Marguerite! (Marguerite, Siebel)
04. Romance: Versez vos chagrins dans mon âme! (Siebel)
05. Dialogue: Adieu, Siebel! (Marguerite, Siebel, Marthe)
06. Chœur et Scène: Déposons les armes! (Siebel, Valentin, Soldats)
07. Couplets: Chaque jour, nouvelle affaire! (Valentin, Soldats)
08. Dialogue: Eh bien, Siebel! (Siebel, Valentin)
09. Scène de l’église: Seigneur, daignez permettre... (Marguerite, Méphistophélès, Chœur)
10. Mélodrame et Dialogue: Vois-tu trembler... (Faust, Méphistophélès)
11. Sérénade: Vous qui faites l’endormie... (Méphistophélès, Faust)
12. Trio: Que voulez-vous, Messieurs? (Faust, Valentin, Méphistophélès)
13. Mort de Valentin: Par ici, mes amis! (Valentin, Siebel, Marthe, Marguerite, Chœur)
Act 4
14. Chœur des follets et Scène: Dans les bruyères... (Faust, Méphistophélès, Chœur)
15. Scène et Chœur: Jusqu’aux premiers feux du matin... (Méphistophélès, Faust, Courtisanes)
16. Chant bachique: Doux nectar, en ton ivresse... (Méphistophélès, Faust, Courtisanes)
17. Chœur de sorcières: Un, deux et trois... (Les Sorcières)
18. Entracte
19. Scène: Va-t’en! (Faust, Méphistophélès)
20. Duo: Ah! c’est la voix du bien-aimé! (Marguerite, Faust)
21. Trio: Alerte, alerte! Ou vous êtes perdus! (Marguerite, Faust, Méphistophélès)
22. Apothéose: Sauvée! (Voix célestes, Chœur d’anges)

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