Performers: Benjamin Bernheim t, Véronique Gens s, Andrew Foster-Williams bar, Les Talens Lyriques, Flemish Radio Choir/Christophe Rousset
Catalogue Number: BRU ZANE BZ1037 (3CD & Book)
Gounod’s Faust seems so well established that it may come as a surprise to learn it was the result of at least 30 years of the composer’s thoughts on the subject. Not only did he come up with some of the musical themes as early as 1840 (in the case of the main tune of the love duet), but 10 years before the triumphant premiere of Faust as we know it at the Paris Opéra in 1869, Gounod produced an earlier attempt in 1859 at the more down-market Théâtre-Lyrique. Now, the enterprising Palazzetto Bru Zane has rewarded us with a recording of not exactly what was performed in 1859, but the considerably different version that went into rehearsals as early as 1858. And it’s a fascinating beast.
The biggest difference is in the earlier opera’s use of spoken dialogue and melodrama (or spoken text over music). Much more in line with the opéra-comique tradition of Auber and Adam, it also helps the work to cleave more closely to Goethe’s original, while opening up the roles of the student Wagner and the comedically romantic Dame Martha. There’s a trio for Faust, Wagner and the lovelorn Siebel (who also gets a second aria), a duet for Marguerite and her brother Valentin (who also gets a military song with chorus), and even a brief chorus of witches in the Brocken scene. Some of the ladders also have snakes: there’s no Soldiers Chorus, no Avant de quitter ces lieux for Valentin (though the tune is tantalisingly there in the overture where Gounod would later find it and press it into service), and Méphistophélès’ song in praise of the Golden Calf is here a rather different ditty in celebration of a dung beetle.
All very interesting, but what makes this release extra special is the quality of the music-making in a performance that rockets it right to the top of the Faustian league table. Christophe Rousset’s period orchestra, Les Talens Lyrique, play superbly, urged on to greatness by a conductor who senses not just the colours that Gounod always intended us to hear, but one whose sure yet flexible idea of the underlying drama crackles with energy.
Benjamin Bernheim’s plangent tenor rises to the challenge, singing with ardent advocacy, while Véronique Gens’ more mature-sounding Marguerite offers insights galore. As Méphistophélès, Andrew Foster-Williams is the lighter voice type Gounod always intended, packing the vocal line with doses of sardonic wit.
The recording is deep and detailed, making this not just the best (and only) ur-Faust on disc, it might just be the best Faust, period.