GOUNOD: Faust (Bjorling, Siepi, Kirsten) (1950) (Naxos Historical: 8.111083-85)
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Charles Gounod (1818-1893)
Charles Gounod achieved great acclaim and popularityin addition to musical influence in France during thenineteenth century. In no way was he a radical comparedto his compatriot Berlioz but, recognising hislimitations, stuck to what he knew best. He wrote in totalfourteen operas of which Faust is the fourth. Derivedfrom Michel Carre's three-act play Faust et Marguerite,the scenario was in turn itself derived from Gerard deNerval's translation of the first part of Goethe's Faust.
Gounod's librettists Jules Barbier and Carre fashioned avaried and profound dramatic work which, if by today'sworld it comes over as conventional and sentimental,proved immensely popular with nineteenth centuryaudiences. For the composer's part the score is wellcrafted and contains a wealth of melodic charm. Thereare telling vocal r?â??les for Marguerite (even if she doesnot appear until the end of Act 1), Faust, themarvellously sinister Mephistophel?â?¿s and Valentin.
Originally the score also contained spoken dialoguewhich made the work seem less grand opera than operacomiqueat the first performance in the The?â?ótre Lyriquein Paris on 19th March 1859. Even before the premi?â?¿re,several entire numbers were cut and the famousSoldiers' Chorus (Act 3 Scene 2) was added at a latestage. Reacting to criticism, Gounod then composedsung recitatives that were added the following year forperformances in Strasbourg, Rouen and Bordeaux. Forthe 1859 production at the Paris Opera the composeradded the obligatory ballet music. Thereafter in its 1869format the opera became a huge success in major housesthroughout the world for the next fifty years. In Paris, forexample, it had five new productions between 1875 and1975.
The title r?â??le demands much of its interpreter bothvocally and dramatically. The character at the openingof the opera is an old man who is then transformed tobecome youthful and poetic once more. The vocal partrequires sweetness, purity and evenness of tone,delicacy and elegance, declamatory power, and a goodwell-placed top C for the big aria 'Salut, demeure'. Forthe r?â??le of Marguerite the contrast of a finely-tunedcoloratura technique for the florid 'Jewel Song' must beallied to a lyrical quality for the Garden Scene. As forthe sinister and satanic Mephistophel?â?¿s, the performermust be overbearing, delicate, and display aconsiderable range of acting talents, in addition topossessing all traits and colours in his vocal palette. Anexcess of any of these qualities and the interpretationcan appear wildly over the top. Then the comparativelyminor baritone r?â??le of Valentin requires much of itsperformer: a good top register, much style and presence.
His aria in Act 1 Scene 2 (Avant de quitter ces lieux)was composed for the English baritone Charles Santleywhen the opera was given in London in 1864. The firstproduction at the Metropolitan Opera House took placeon 22nd October 1883. Thereafter it has remained in therepertoire most of that time.
The 1950-51 season saw a change in the overalladministration of the Metropolitan Opera House withthe retirement of the Canadian tenor Edward Johnson(1878-1959) after fifteen years in charge. He wassucceeded by the Austrian-born but British-naturalisedRudolf Bing (1902-1997). He had come to the post byway of Darmstadt (1928-30), Glyndebourne (1934,General Manager 1936-49) and the position of artisticmanager of the Edinburgh Festival (1947-49). His 22years in charge at the Metropolitan saw many changes,considerable development of both native and foreignsingers, as well as the introduction of black artiststhrough Marian Anderson in 1955, and a move to thenew theatre in the Lincoln Center in 1962.
A feature of this 1950 Faust performance was theinclusion of the Walpurgis Night ballet for the first timesince the 1917-18 season. The years of omission hadbeen decided upon by earlier managements who were ofthe opinion that this scene, which the composer addedten years after the opera's premi?â?¿re, was anafterthought.
The Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling (1911-1960) wasborn in Stora Tuna in the district of Dalarma, and as aboy toured and recorded with the family quartet, inaddition to visiting the United States. His adult teacherswere his father David, John Forsell and the Scottishtenor Joseph Hislop. He was a member of the RoyalOpera in Stockholm from 1930 onwards but two yearslater began his international career in Germany,followed by Vienna (1936), the Metropolitan Opera inNew York (1938) and Covent Garden the followingyear. Whilst Bjorling was widely regarded as theforemost 'Italian' tenor of his day in the spinto r?â??les ofPuccini and Verdi, he also excelled in French opera. Hiswork was respected for its artistic qualities - his vocalquality was very consistent over its entire range, even ifhis acting ability was somewhat stilted. He recordedextensively from the mis-1930s until his early death in1960. His increasingly poor health in later years wascaused by heart problems. His ten complete studiomadeoperatic recordings include Il trovatore (Naxos8.110240-41), Pagliacci (8.110258) and CavalleriaRusticana (8.110261). The r?â??le of Faust was one thatBjorling sang throughout his career after 1934. Hemarried the soprano Anna-Lisa Berg in 1935 and theyappeared together both in concert and stageperformances.
The vibrantly voiced Italian bass Cesare Siepi wasborn in Milan in 1923. After study at that city'sConservatorio, he made his debut as Sparafucile inRigoletto in Schio in 1941. In 1943, however, he fled toSwitzerland, because of his strong anti-Fascist views.
Five years later he first appeared at La Scala, Milan, asRamfis in Aida, Padre Guardiano in La forza del destinoand Zaccaria in Nabucco. Siepe was chosen byToscanini to take part in the Boito celebration at LaScala as Mefistofele and Simon Mago in Nerone. Hecontinued with the Company as a regular member forfour years before singing at the Metropolitan in NewYork as Philip II in Don Carlos on the opening night ofRudolf Bing's tenure in November 1950. He was avalued member at the Met for 23 seasons singing 379performances of 18 r?â??les. These included Figaro in Lenozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Basilio in Il barbiere diSiviglia, Boris Godunov, Gurnemanz in Parsifal andOrovesco in Norma. He appeared at the SalzburgFestival (1953-58), San Francisco (1954), CoventGarden (1962-73), Spain and South America. Siepi'sdiversity was such that he appeared in a Broadwaymusical in 1962 entitled Bravo Giovanni and recordedan album of Cole Porter songs. His career was variedand long so that he was still appearing in Italy until the1980s. He possessed a smooth, rich and evenlyproduced voice allied to excellent musicianship and asplendid stage presence. He recorded extensively for anumber of labels.
The American baritone Frank Guarrera was bornin Philadelphia in 1923. Studying with Richard Bonelliat the Curtis Institute in his native city, he made hisdebut as Silvio in Pagliacci at the New York City Operain 1947. His European appearance was as Zurga in LesP?â?¬cheurs de perles at La Scala, Milan the followingyear, also singing Fanvel in Acts 3 and 4 of Neroneunder Toscanini. That same season he made hisMetropolitan Opera debut as Escamillo in Carmen andover the next 28 seasons sang over four hundredperformances with the Company. In addition he sangwith the New York City Opera. His repertoire includedall the principal Italian baritone r?â??les. He also sang inChicago, San Francisco, London and Paris. His mostcelebrated recording is as Ford in Verdi's Falstaff,recorded in 1950 under Toscanini, in addition to takingpart in a series of Metropolitan Opera recordings for theBook-of-the-Month Club. After retiring from singing helater taught at the Curtis Institute.
The American soprano Anne Bollinger (1919-1962) wa