Friday 20 September 2019

The other Fausts: a very different version of Gounod's classic opera is revealed by this important new recording from Palazzetto Bru Zane

Gounod: Faust - Palazzetto Bru Zane
Gounod: Faust; Benjamin Bernheim, Véronique Gens, Andrew Foster-Williams, Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset; Palazzetto Bru Zane
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 September 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A revelation, Gounod's classic proves to be a far more varied and characterful opera in this exploration of the versions he originally wrote in the 1850s

For such an established classic, Charles Gounod's Faust has a remarkably complex history. The work's present grand opera form, hides a rather more diverse work. On this new recording from Palazzetto Bru Zane, Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques explores the earlier Faust (or perhaps Fausts) as they explore Gounod's earlier versions of the opera, with Benjamin Bernheim as Faust, Véronique Gens as Marguerite, Andrew Foster-Williams as Méphistophéles, Jean-Sébastien Bou as Valentin, and Juliette Mars as Siebel, and the Flemish Radio Choir.

Charles Gounod and his librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carre (on whose play Barbier based the libretto) completed Faust in 1858. It was submitted to the Théâtre Lyrique, accepted and went into rehearsal. Gounod would have a long relationship with the Théâtre Lyrique, writing a significant number of operas for it - Le médecin malgré lui (1858), Faust (1859), Philémon et Baucis (1860), La colombe (1860), Mireille (1864), Roméo et Juliette (1867). The theatre's director, Leon Carvalho took a very active role in the creation of the opera, and forced a number of modifications on Gounod; notably Carvalho's wife Madame Miolan-Carvalho was a coloratura soprano and the role of Marguerite had to be suitable for her. Gounod would further modify the opera to make it acceptable to the Paris Opéra, where it was performed in 1869 and it is this version which is the common version.

There are thus, at least three possible versions of the piece, 1858 (as first written by Gounod), 1859 (as performed by the Théâtre Lyrique) and 1869 (as performed by the Paris Opera). The big difference between 1869 and the earlier versions is, of course, the replacement of the spoken dialogue by recitative, but the process is more complex than that and at the Théâtre Lyrique Faust seems to have undergone a sort of continuous modification.

Gounod: Faust: Veronique Gens, Christophe Rousset, Benjamin Bernheim, Andrew Foster Williams, Les Talens Lyriques, Flemish Radio Choir (Photo ©Palazzetto Bru Zane / Amélie Debray)
Gounod: Faust: Veronique Gens, Christophe Rousset, Benjamin Bernheim, Andrew Foster Williams, Les Talens Lyriques, Flemish Radio Choir (Photo ©Palazzetto Bru Zane / Amélie Debray)
The recording is based on a new critical edition by Paul Prevost, and he explains in a fascinating article in the CD book that it is now no longer possible to re-create that first, 1858 Faust, as not everything survives and some has had to be orchestrated from the 1859 vocal score. So what we have here is an alternative Faust which uses the libretto of 1858 and 1859 with its spoken dialogue, and opts for the unpublished or unknown versions of any music where choices are to be made. The result is a very different Faust.

I have to confess, I have always had a bit of a problem with Faust and found that the streak of grand opera sentimentality running through it rather unsatisfactory. For me, the final act is just not a patch on Berlioz' equivalent scenes in La Damnation de Faust. My judgement of the final act remains, largely, unchanged but the rest of the opera has undergone something of a transformation. It is far more diverse, varied and engaging than the revised version. The focus is far less on Faust, Marguerite and Méphistophéles for a start, the smaller characters get more to do and there is more for Siebel and Valentin to sing in Act Three. This is clearly an opéra comique, and the dialogue has its fair share of comedy, from these minor characters but also from Méphistophéles. And we get quite a bit of that rather forgotten art, the melodrama. Having heard this version, as with Carmen, I can see no reason for ever wanting to perform the recitatives again.

The vocal casting is somewhat different too, as a look at the main trio of soloists implies, with the voices reflecting a style of singing very specific to this type of opera in France in the 19th century. Benjamin Bernheim is known for his performances in Faust in the standard version [see my review of Faust from Riga], but his beautifully focused voice with its fine sense of elegant line gives the character a rather younger feel. He is ideal casting, and I can think of no other modern performance which brings such ardency, clarity and beauty to the role. Bernheim sings much of the higher line in the voix mixte which was commonly used by tenors at the Opéra Comique and Théâtre Lyrique [a voice type explored in tenor Julien Behr's recital, Confidence, from Palazzetto Bru Zane, see my review], a world away from the bigger, and sometimes harsher sound of the modern tenor. Faust is a shit, but Bernheim almost makes you love him.

Véronique Gens is a rather different type of voice than usually used for Marguerite, lyric rather than coloratura, with a lower centre of gravity. Probably rather closer to what Gounod wanted (judging by his views on casting in theatres away from the Théâtre Lyrique). The recording opts for the lower alternatives in a number of places. This entirely re-focuses the role, Marguerite is no longer the 'silly little girl' implied by the coloratura roulades, but a more thoughtful, mellow person and it helps that Gens is beautifully expressive. Granted, in the Jewel Song and elsewhere it is apparent that the roulades are perhaps not Gens' strongest point, but this makes them expressive rather than becoming the focus of the role.

Andrew Foster-Williams also has a higher, lighter voice than classic Méphistophéles, emphasising that the role was originally intended for the baryton-basse de caractère, a type of voice rather specific to the Opéra Comique and the Théâtre Lyrique. And this, combined with the extensive spoken dialogue which gives a number of comic asides to Méphistophéles, brings a different feel to the character. Foster-Williams is a great delight, and clearly relishes the sheer variety that the character has in this version.

Jean-Sébastien Bou impresses as Valentin with his beautifully produced baritone, and rather more to do in this version. Juliette Mars is an ardent Siebel, though her voice is not always as ideally focused as I would like, whilst Ingrid Perruce and Anas Séguin provide strong, and characterful, support as Dame Marthe and Wagner.

Having Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques accompanying the opera provides another important layer in the restoration. No-longer do we have the massive, modern orchestra; here the orchestral music is lighter and more transparent, full of colours and character which complements this alternative version of the opera. The Flemish Radio Choir sing with a will, and enter into the drama beautifully.

It is, of course, far too long. The total music is not many minutes shy of three hours and as there are four acts, in the theatre we would require two intervals, pushing the total running time to nearly four hours. But on disc we can have the leisure to listen and it is important to have all this music available. I hope that the release of this recording, and Paul Prevost's critical edition published by Barenreiter, will mean that theatres will feel emboldened to explore these other Fausts.

Charles Gounod (1818-1893) - Faust (1859)
Faust - Benjamin Bernheim
Marguerite - Véronique Gens
Méphistophéles - Andrew Foster-Williams
Valentin - Jean-Sébastien Bou
Siebel - Juliette Mars
Dame Marthe - Ingrid Perruce
Wagner / Un mendicant - Anas Séguin
Flemish Radio Choir
Les Talens Lyriques
Christophe Rousset
Recorded Salle Gramont du Conservatoire Jean-Baptiste Lully du Puteaux, 10, 11, 13 June 2018, and Theatre des Champs-Elysees, 14 June 2018.
Palazzetto Bru Zane
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