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Charles Gounod: Faust
Benjamin Bernheim (Faust), Véronique Gens (Marguerite), Andrew Foster-Williams (Méphistophélès), Jean-Sébastien Bou (Valentin), Juliette Mars (Siébel), Ingrid Perruche (Dame Marthe), Anas Séguin (Wagner, a beggar), Flemish Radio Choir, Martin Robidoux (chorus master), Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset (conductor)
Recording: La Salle Gramont du Conservatoire Jean-Baptiste Lully de Puteaux (June 10, 11 and 13, 2018) and the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées (June 14, 2018) – 174’28
Three CDs Bru Zane BZ 1037 (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Booklet in French and English

Opera aficionados who’ve frequented the theatre to view Charles Gounod’s most popular work, Faust, will want to strongly consider looking into this Bru Zane recording. Listening to this 1859 version, as Gounod originally scored it for its premiere at the Théâtre-Lyrique on March 19, will ignite puzzlements and interesting twists and turns. But it’s all been sorted out in Alexandre Dratwicki’s fascinating write-up. So, you think you know Faust? Read on.

Most notable is spoken dialogue being woven into the score: it anticipates Bizet’s opéra-comique, Carmen. Three significantly truncated characters now have more prominence, those being Wagner (a confident, vocally positioned Anas Séguin), a youthful, passionate and animated Siébel (here sung by Juliette Mars) and an overly-excessive and demonstrative Dame Marthe (that's been handed over to Ingrid Perruche).

Amazing, indeed, is what Benjamin Bernheim brings to his Faust: a consistently vibrant voice that cleanly reverts from clarion tonality to softening phrases in an instant. This sets himself up to be a well-positioned ténor de demi-caractère and the ability to flexibly adjust to the emotional ups and downs through use of a voix mixte.

The most intriguing roles, by way of voice classification, are those of Marguerite and Méphistophélès. Customarily on stage we hear a high pitched coloratura soprano that chirps away at the notes; however, the tables have been turned with this Marguerite: the colouring within Véronique Gens is unusual to hear, yet it is absolutely fabulous. Gounod’s music rests well within her tessitura with her leaning more into a mezzo. She has a timbre that generates sophisticated, dramatic soulfulness. No one can match the beauty of her voice, and how she forms her words gives her Marguerite an asterisk in front of her name…a special master of singing! Furthermore, we normally expect a deeper, broader voice slipping into Méphistophélès’ shoes, one that we could find in Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, but Andrew Foster-Williams has a lighter edge in his register, and a most prudent one at that. This is where his aura shines, one that nicely emulates the, then, requisites at the Opéra-Comique and the Théâtre Lyrique, namely a baryton-basse de caractère.

Without looking at Gounod’s original score, it's hard to comment on Christophe Rousset’s tempos, but one will hear pleasing surprises: the Waltz ending Act I goes at breakneck speed, and the closing of Marguerite’s “Air des bijoux” ends with a languishing tempo (perhaps the offset from a coloratura rendition).

Left behind in Gounod’s later editions are the ballet (Act V), “Gloire immortelle” and Méphistophélès’ “Le veau d’or”, to name a few. Yet what is picked up in the 1859 version has some illustrious numbers, along with the fascinating speaking segments that are wiggled throughout the four acts. The score now has more meaning, more strength and deeper pathos. There is something deeply profound when discovering this first version. Special commendations also go to the Flemish Radio Choir whose blends yield ethereal delights and help exude French romantic lyricism.

In closing, M. Dratwicki is quoted, “This Faustian ‘object', though designed to offer maximum satisfaction to the curiosity of music lovers, has also been conceived as a coherent dramatic work that would be wholly viable on stage.” We wait for such an opportunity.

Highly recommended.

Bru Zane Website

Christie Grimstad




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