Gounod: Faust
Eleanor Steber, soprano (Marguerite), Eugene Conley, tenor (Faust), Cesare Siepi, bass (MÈphistophÈlËs), Frank Guarrera, baritone (Valentin), Margaret Roggero, mezzo-soprano (Siebel).  Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera Association, Kurt Adler, cond.
PREISER Paperback Opera (20015) 
(M)  (ADD) (2 CDs) TT: 2:22:13

This is a bit of a "sleeper" among commercial recordings of Charles Gounod's Faust.  Discussions of recommended versions usually begin with the 1930 EMI Paris OpÈra recording - in primitive sound, but notable for the idiomatic performance led by Marcel Journet's incomparable Mephisto.  Among the more modern recordings, the 1958 EMI version with Victoria de los Angeles, Nicolai Gedda, Boris Christoff, and Ernest Blanc often receives mention.  But this 1951 Metropolitan Opera recording from Columbia Records is also worthy of attention.  While far from ideal, it preserves some fine interpretations of the principal roles, including two that can stand comparison with any on records.

Leading the cast is Cesare Siepi as Méphistophélès.  The 32-year-old basso is in his youthful prime.  The voice, of incredible beauty, range, and power would be sufficient, in and of itself, to qualify Siepi as one of the finest Mephistos on record.  But Siepi also gives a performance of considerable nuance and detail.  The Italian basso's French is quite good, and Siepi does a fabulous job of differentiating between the Devil's seductive charm and the evil that underlies it.  As a result, the confrontation with Marguerite in the church and the final Prison Scene are all the more effective.  This is a fabulous performance in every way.  I would go out on a limb and say that Siepi's contribution alone justifies the set's purchase price.

But this Faust also boasts one of the finest Marguerites.  Eleanor Steber was a lyric soprano, but one whose voice featured an unusual and striking combination of tonal richness and admirable flexibility.  These qualities, which served Steber so well in the music of Mozart, also are used to great advantage in her assumption of Marguerite.  The coloratura of the Jewel Song is dispatched with aplomb.  And while Steber is able to capture the shy, innocent, nature of Marguerite, she also masterfully portrays the passion of this woman, and her despair after betrayal.  As in the case of Siepi, Steber makes this Faust a recording of considerable merit.

The remainder of the cast is fine, although not on the level of Siepi and Steber.  Tenor Eugene Conley does not bring any special interpretive touches to the title role but his voice is attractive and strong, with ringing high notes.  He also maintains a fine legato and sings with an ardor befitting the rejuvenated Faust.  Frank Guarrera is a healthy-voiced and decidedly un-Gallic Valentin.  Margaret Roggero is more than adequate as Siebel.  Accompaniment by conductor Fausto Cleva and the Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera is sturdy, with a good sense of forward momentum, although there is nothing that stands out as particularly memorable.  Somewhat memorable, but for the wrong reasons, is the contribution of the Metropolitan Opera chorus—ragged in ensemble, and adopting the approach that nasality equals idiomatic French pronunciation. The Walpurgis Night scene is cut.  The mono transfers (one assumes of an LP pressing) are quite good, with a wide dynamic range and considerable presence.  No libretto is provided, just a brief essay, along with a listing of the cast and CD tracks.

Thanks are due to Preiser Records for reissuing this valuable recording.  Perhaps Preiser can also see its way clear to give us CD versions of some other 1950's Met recordings, such as the Cav and Pag with Richard Tucker, and the first commercial recording of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, conducted by the composer.

K.M. (October 2002)