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4.0 out of 5 stars "An endless round of lyrical emotion", 31 May 2009
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This review is from: Gounod: Faust (Audio CD)
In `Man and His Music', the late Wilfred Mellers wrote that Gounod and Massenet were two opera composers who fulfilled the cultural demands of the new bourgeoisie of the second half of the nineteenth century: "Aristocratic hauteur and visionary splendours and sorrows were not for them. They wanted an art that would flatter their opulence and promote daydreams, as a relief from the cares involved in getting richer." He describes Gounod's waltz music from his `Faust' as "a footling tune, as redolent of the tawdry, gas-lit glamour of the Parisian theatre as it is remote from Goethe." Mellers is here being perceptive but perhaps also a little unfair.

Whilst by no means the original teller of the tale, Goethe's `Faust' must have been the supreme of nineteenth-century artistic inspirations, effecting virtually all composers in some way or another, from Berlioz and Liszt to Mahler and beyond. But Gounod's interpretation is deemed to be so "remote from Goethe" as to be called `Margarete' in Germany. It is true that Gounod's focus on the Marguerite's relationship with Faust is too heavy, and Faust's wooing and abandonment of Marguerite too long - I prefer Berlioz - but otherwise the opera is, as described by Hans-Christian Schmidt in the book that accompanies the discs, "submerged in an endless round of lyrical emotion."

Schmidt explains why there is no definitive version of this opera. This 1993 recording is based on Oeser and Zimmer's score of 1972, "whose plot is comprehensible and who musical structure makes sense." The main difference from the synopsis in, say Kobbe's opera guide is that the return of Valentin in act four comes before Marguerite's church scene. This recording has also removed act four's ballet music and placed it as an appendix at the end, as it "does considerable damage to the dramatic balance." Faust's drinking song in act four is also placed there: "Intimate tenderness and outward spectacle, vivid cinematographic pictures and lyrically engrossing moments of motionless emotional utterance - it is this balance that the new critical edition of the opera used in this recording has taken great pains to preserve."

I did not come to this opera because I have a thing for Gounod, or for French opera of the Second Empire period, rather because I wanted to understand its popularity. The opera's opening to Gounod's `Faust' makes one wonder if you are hearing a Beethoven overture, or some Schubert, or even perhaps some early Tchaikovsky. But it quickly becomes evident by the start of scene two that Gounod has learned from Berlioz's success, or even early Verdi. In fact some of the sound prefigures Bizet's later `Carmen'. And the apotheosis prefigures Mahler's second symphony!

It would be invidious to single out any individual performer in this production: it was clearly an all-round team effort. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to be swayed by Mephistopheles's Song of the Golden Calf, the waltz at the end of the first act, the return of the troops in the third, the Dies Irae, and the sorcerers' count to thirteen in act four. Many of the positive points about this production are found not so much in the large set pieces or the tender solos but in the subtle orchestrations. I enjoyed the pastorale dance tune sung by the choir outside Faust's window, prefigured earlier on the oboe; the harp and shimmering strings supported by a golden horn when Faust first glimpses Marguerite; and Mephistopheles's laugh at the close of the second act. Finally, I cannot help but comment that the courtesans sound like angels!

Unfortunately, the opera's four acts is split over three discs.
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Nicholas Casley

Location: Plymouth, Devon, UK

Top Reviewer Ranking: 110