1912 recording of 'Faust' is surprisingly good

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Last week, I told you about Marston Records and mentioned the very first recording in French of Gounod's "Faust." I hunted up my old review of that set and want to entice some of my fellow operaphiles to hear the work as the composer intended it to sound.

In 1912, a French company named Pathé issued a recording of Gounod's immensely popular opera "Faust." To hear it, one had to play no less than 56 sides! This very first "Faust" is now available on 3 somewhat more convenient CD sides in a boxed set from Marston Records. And it is an amazing product for its time.

Ward Marston has devoted his life to restoring ancient recordings onto modern discs. He describes in a well detailed booklet how Pathé made these recordings (in a most primitive way), a history of the opera "Faust," and details about the singers heard on this recording. He did wonders with the sound, which is at times nearly as good as any early electric 78-rpm disc. The slightly noticeable surface noise only adds charm to what is essentially a time-trip to 17 years before electric recordings became possible.

Indeed, I was also amazed at how complete and well-paced the performance is. Not only does it contain the Walpurgis Night scene with all of the ballet music (omitted from many an early LP version) but actually includes Marguerite's Act IV lament, which is even today seldom heard in the opera house. Valentine's aria, which was added by Gounod at the request of an English baritone, is not included.

Not too surprisingly, while much of the singing is quite good, there is little dramatic tension, for example, in the duel between Faust and Valentine. The conductor is Francois Ruhlmann.

Andre Gresse makes a lively Mephistopheles, Leon Beyle a sympathetic Faust, and Jeanne Campredon a fragile Marguerite. More important is the fact that this recording is a valuable document of how French opera was sung early in the last century before rapid transit brought international casts to every opera house, thereby neatly killing anything of a national style. Lovers of Gounod's masterpiece will want to hear this performance, as will operatic vocal coaches and their students.

As a wonderful filler for disc 3, Marston has included 13 other recordings of arias and ensembles, including Valentine's solo, that give even more examples of French singing at that point in history.

Search www.marstonrecords.com for this and other operatic treasures from a bygone age.

Frank Behrens reports on classical and Broadway music as well as recordings of books and plays for the Arts and Entertainment section. Visit franklinbehrens.com for past reviews.


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