Gounod: Faust
Victoria de los Angeles, soprano (Marguerite), Nicolai Gedda, tenor (Faust), Boris Christoff, bass (MÈphistophÈlËs), Ernest Blanc, baritone (Valentin), Liliane Berton, soprano (Siebel). Chorus and Orchestra of the National Opera Theatre/AndrÈ Cluytens, cond.
EMI 67975 M (ADD) 3 Discs TT: 2:52:29

This "Great Recordings of the Century" release is the second compact disc reissue of EMI's first stereo recording of Gounod's Faust, originally taped in 1958. At the outset I have to admit that objectivity does not come easily in evaluating this recording. Thirty years ago, my high school French teacher used this recording to introduce my class to the wonders of opera. This gifted educator - a Maryland Teacher of the Year, and National Teacher of the Year finalist - was responsible for inspiring my lifelong passion for opera. And in those early years this EMI recording represented for me not just Gounod's Faust, but the magical world of opera as well.

Over the years I've added far too many recordings to my collection, including most of the commercial issues (as well as several in-performance versions) of Gounod's masterpiece. And while comparing those recordings with the one under consideration certainly reveals certain shortcomings, it also serves to confirm that the EMI Faust remains among the finest on disc.

This is the last of the commercial recordings to feature performing forces that are either French-born, or at the very least, adept with the French language and style (with one notable exception). One can only imagine how many times the members of the Chorus and Orchestra of the Paris OpÈra had performed Faust by the time this recording was made. And that experience certainly shows - not with any sense of routine or ennui, but in a performance of tremendous spirit and authority. Of course much of the credit must go to AndrÈ Cluytens, a wonderful conductor who offers a reading of admirable detail and momentum, giving full measure to the score’s drama, romance, and humor. The recording includes the Walpurgisnacht Scene, complete with ballet.

Leading the soloists we have Victoria de los Angeles, always an exquisite interpreter of French repertoire. In many ways the Spanish soprano was ideally suited to interpret Marguerite, one of her greatest roles. Her delicate, vulnerable timbre personifies the innocence of Gounod's tragic heroine. But de los Angeles also has the technical Èlan to capture Marguerite's girlish wonder upon discovering the gift of the jewels. There is passion and vocal opulence in her portrayal of the heroine's growing rapture for Faust. De los Angeles summons her vocal reserves to convey with overwhelming power Marguerite’s desperation in the Church and Prison scenes. This set would be worth acquiring just for her contribution.

Fortunately the other principals offer many pleasures as well. Like de los Angeles, Swedish tenor, Nicolai Gedda, was one of his generation's finest exponents of French opera. His impassioned delivery, linguistic expertise, and stylish approach serve the title character well. I only wish that on this occasion Gedda had been willing to scale his voice back a bit more frequently. Other recordings certainly reveal the magic he could achieve when singing in softer dynamics. Still, on balance, this is among the best assumptions of the title role.

Likewise, Ernest Blanc is a glorious Valentin. His warm and vibrant baritone heroically conquers the role’s difficult tessitura. The French baritone offers plenty of dramatic fire, culminating in a potent death scene. Soprano Liliane Berton is charming, vivacious, and sympathetic as Siebel. And what luxury casting it is to have the magnificent Rita Gorr in the subsidiary role of Marthe!

Which leaves us the most controversial member of the cast, Boris Christoff as MÈphistophÈlËs. Those who are seeking a suave, Gallic interpretation of Gounod's devil are certainly advised to look elsewhere. The French pronunciation of this Bulgarian-born singer is, to put it mildly, exotic. And there is very little about his performance that one might be tempted to characterize as subtle. From his grandiose entrance to the final, roaring denunciation of Marguerite, Boris Christoff is a larger-than-life presence. Some might even suggest that Christoff's exuberant approach is larger than Gounod's music. But I find it hard to resist the glorious quality of Christoff's voice, his irrepressible energy, and obvious delight in playing the role. This is certainly not the only way (or probably even the right way) to perform MÈphistophÈlËs. Still, it is a performance that offers many pleasures, even if they are of the guilty variety.

The new "Great Recordings of the Century" issue is a marked improvement over the previous 1989 CD release. Occasionally there is minimal distortion in high and loud passages, but the new issue offers greater presence and definition, with a noticeable reduction in harshness.

On balance I think this is the best of the stereo recordings of Faust. The 1930 EMI Paris OpÈra recording (currently available from www.andante.com) provides an important supplement. It features a wonderfully idiomatic cast, led by the unequalled Mephisto of Marcel Journet. Another strong contender is the 1951 Metropolitan Opera recording (Preiser) with Eugene Conley, Eleanor Steber, and Cesare Siepi I reviewed here a few months ago.

K.M. (March 2003)