on 19 July 2009
This live recording of Gounod's perennial favourite, "Faust", has come out on several CD labels which perpetuate this 26 February 1953 New Orleans performance. The earliest one seems to be Legato Classics (LCD-167, 2 compact discs), the others being on the Walhall and Great Opera Performances (also know simply by the initials, G.P.O.) labels. There is no other complete recording, live or otherwise, of "Faust" with the great tenor, Richard Tucker, in the title role. That is unfortunate, perhaps, since the orchestra (attributed, although not so identified by the Legato Classics release, to the New Orleans Symphony, the predecessor to the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra) and the chorus are rather far from being of the calibre of the principal soloists. And what a cast it is!: Richard Tucker (tenor), as already mentioned, as Faust, Victoria de los Ángeles (soprano) as Marguérite, and Nicola Moscona (bass) as Méphistophéles.
Even the secondary roles are respectably cast. Henri Noel takes the baritone role of Valentin without notable tonal splendour, perhaps, but sings with technical assurance and musicality. Cecilia Ward is sweetly touching in the soprano travesti role of Marguérite's faithful swain Siébel. Maria Mayhoff amusingly portrays the mezzo-soprano role of Marthe in all of that duenna's old-maid feminine foolishness. Don Bernard sings the baritone role of Wagner (in some productions named Brander).
Still, one longs to hear Richard Tucker in the title role in the setting of a more prestigious venue, such as the Metropolitan Opera, with its suprerior orchestra and chorus, an house for which Tucker did sing Faust a number of times between 1948 and 1958. Alas, performances that starred Tucker in such stellar productions do not seem to have survived as recordings. Tucker did sing an excerpt from "Faust" now and then, here and there, such as an exquisitely lovely one for a rather early studio-recorded mono R.C.A. Victor LP operatic recital, and the 1964 "Salut demeure, chaste et pure" for television in 1964 (in a short video mounted several times on YouTube's WWW site). In those, Tucker sings with more delicacy than he sang the entire role in New Orleans. Nevertheless, to have singing so splendidly refulgent in tone allied to such lyricism of delivery is to be treasured, however and wherever one encounters Tucker's Faust!
Victoria de los Ángeles is exquisite as Marguérite, her singing girlishly alluring and technically impeccable, including perfect trills and brilliantly accurate coloratura. She really was alive to every dramatic nuance of the role, suggesting Marguérite's various moods of maidenly innocence, temptation, ecstatic romance, and, after her downfall, of tragic poignancy. Hers is a Marguérite nearly impossible to top, but, thankfully, recordings of de los Ángeles' Marguérite survive elsewhere, with better orchestral and choral support, notably in her two studio recordings of the role, first (as initially released on LP discs in North America) for R.C.A. Victor and then for Capitol/E.M.I. Thus, for celebrity vocalism's sake, this New Orleans performance really is primarily for fans of Tucker and of Moscona.
Nicola Moscona, the Greek-American bass, is, indeed, the "trump card" of this live recording! His Méphistophéles is a marvel! The "wooliness" that so often afflicted his singing tone is little in evidence on this New Orleans occasion, and, to these ears at least, Moscona sounds more vivid and vibrant in this performance than his singing more famously under Toscanini's leadership ever would suggest to be possible. Moscona's Méphisto is dramatically as well as vocally vivid, wily, seductive (as in his comic wooing of Marthe in the Garden Scene), threatening (as only Satan can be thus utterly!), and all the rest. Moscona's Méphistophéles alone would be ample reason to acquire this recording, but, then, there are, so rewardingly, Tucker and de los Ángeles as well! One suspects that Tucker sang the role a bit more off-handedly (but still with considerable vocal potentency) than he did so in New York or in other front-rank opera houses, "slumming it" in New Orleans, as it were, whereas for Moscona, this New Orleans performance was a great opportunity for him to show an audience just how fine a singing actor he really could be! Moscona's stage laugh is wickedly infectious, perhaps a sign of just how much the bass was dramatically involved, and enjoying himself, in his exuberently spirited performance.
Walter Herbert conducts the performance, with a lot more visceral excitement than was often typical of his work in San Francisco or elsewhere. He certainly does not appear to have given the orchestra and chorus any occasion to wallow relaxedly in their provincial (but respectable) mediocrity. Actually, the orchestra for the most part plays quite well, especially the lower strings, winds, and brass. The problem lies throughout the performance with the violin sections, where orchestral weakness so frequently reveals itself most readily, as in any rendition of a work that requires such instrumental forces. The beautifully perfumed, evocative music of the eventful Garden Scene of Act Three, which Gounod orchestrated so beautifully, suffers the most from lack of consistently skillful orchestral playing. If this really is the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra, a bit too undersized (at least as deployed for the occasion) to rise to the challenging demands of Gounod's rich orchestral scoring for "Faust", that ensemble had a ways to progress before its upper strings would become those of the Lousiana Philharmonic Orchestra, into which the N.O.S.O. later morphed. This recording of "Faust" is, for sure, of a performance in the theatre, obvious from the moderate amount of stage noise, and by no means of some concert performance of an opera as part of a symphony orchestra's season.
The inclusion of "Walpurgis Night" dance music (often omitted in stage productions or even on many studio recordings) gives an extended display of the orchestra's strengths and shortcomings. However, the playing of the first and second violins is minimally adequate, if not much more than that, and the orchestra by no means could be said to be really scandalously insufficient to the task before it. One of the best instrumental moments in this orchestra's playing, due to the N.O.S.O.'s fine lower string sections, is the brooding, hulking presence that the lower strings create at the bleak opening of the opera, where Gounod's compositional skill is redolent of the sinuously gloomy colour and melodic profile of Luigi Cherubini's orchestral writing at that composer's most dramatially and musically sombre. As for the chorus, which in Gounod's opera has lots to do, it holds up its end of things decently, with lively collective involvement in the action, although its male singers do sound rather callow and choral intonation goes too jarringly astray at times.
If the Amazon user reading these lines has a strong devotion to Richard Tucker's singing, he should obtain this recording, despite the limitations of the ensemble forces in this performance. Those setting out to discover Richard Tucker's singing for the first time, however, should obtain other recordings which feature this fine singer at his stylishly musicodramatic best, for example, his recording (in English) of Mozart's "Così fan tutte", the earlier of his two commercial recordings of Verdi's "Aida" (the one under Toscanini's direction), several of his "recorded recitals" of arias and/or songs, his towering recorded live performances of Halévy's "La Juive" and of Meyerbeer's "L'Africaine" (in Italian, as "L'Africana"), his cantorial recordings of Jewish liturgical music, and others of his recordings of similarly monumental stature. Nobody, though, is likely to find that he has wasted his money in purchasing this recorded performance of Gounod's "Faust"!