Gounod: Faust

COMPOSERS: Gounod
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Faust
PERFORMER: Helen Jepson, Richard Crooks, Ezio Pinza; Metropolitan Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Wilfred Pelletier
CATALOGUE NO: 8.110016/7 AAD mono
The new Naxos Immortal Performances series adds an extremely competitive range to the market for historical performances. At bargain price, the initial batch focuses on live performances from New York Met broadcasts of the Thirties and Forties, when vocal legends trod the stage. While derived from the best available primary sources, these recordings clearly cannot compare with their modern studio equivalents in sound quality, but as their worthwhile documentation points out, the value of the performances is often enough to guarantee musical satisfaction.

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The earliest of this first batch is The Tales of Hoffmann, from 1937. Maurice Abravanel – who later concentrated on symphonic conducting, earning equal renown as an interpreter of the music of his teacher, Kurt Weill – conducts a compelling interpretation, capturing the strange and fantastic nature of the piece. Two Belgian principals add an authentic touch. René Maison may not have possessed the most ingratiating of voices, but he recreates the much-disappointed poet with the right blend of energy and elation. Vina Bovy partners him in all four soprano roles – the sole occasion on which she sang them all in one Met performance. It’s a tour de force, in which she depicts the doll Olympia in soulless glassy tone, finding equally appropriate colours for the dangerous courtesan Giulietta and the warmer and more human Antonia. Also quadrupling up on roles is star baritone Lawrence Tibbett, who differentiates his villainous quartet with comparable success.

A lighter French work, though this time by an Italian, is Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment, staged as a vehicle for the hugely popular French coloratura soprano Lily Pons in December 1940. By all accounts, Pons’s success lay as much in her personality as in her top notes, though her technique, if mechanically deployed, is impressive. She indulges in a good deal of decoration, not all of it appropriate, and brings down the curtain with her closing rendition of the Marseillaise, tacked on to Donizetti’s already patriotic ‘Salut à la France’. The vocal honours of the afternoon, however, go to the sweet-toned lyricism of Canadian tenor Raoul Jobin. Italian buffo Salvatore Baccaloni supplies a ripe old cheese of a performance as the amiable Sergeant Sulpice, and conductor Gennaro Papi keeps this particular regiment adroitly on the march.

More regular French fare – Gounod’s Faust – comes courtesy of a Met tour date at the Boston Opera House in April 1940. The leading American lyric tenor Richard Crooks, one of the finest of all American singers, takes the title role, reaching an apogee in a fine account of ‘Salut! demeure chaste et pure’. His innocent victim Marguerite is sung by American soprano Helen Jepson in an attractive portrayal based on a lovely voice, good French, and a good technique. She partners him particularly well throughout the Garden Scene. Though he pours out strong tone as Marguerite’s disagreeable brother, Leonard Warren’s Valentin is somewhat monotonous. By contrast, Ezio Pinza’s Méphistophélès is a portrait of considerable humour delivered in a voluminous bass. Sadly, Wilfred Pelletier’s conducting is merely commonplace.

Ettore Panizza’s in Alceste is worse. His torpid direction effectively sabotages the revival of Gluck’s elevated masterpiece on 8 March 1941. Not surprisingly, the Alceste, Rose Bampton, a capable and conscientious artist, is unable to energise the Gluckian line, and despite a certain grandeur of conception her vocal heroics seem a shade fragile. René Maison is seriously off form as her dying, then not dying husband Admète, though Warren’s distinctive baritone makes for an appropriately high-powered High Priest.

An altogether more admirable level is achieved in the Don Giovanni of 7 March 1942 under Bruno Walter. This performance has earned a classic status, not just because of Walter’s full-blooded conducting, but because of a cast packed with famous names. Even in 1942 Ezio Pinza’s Giovanni was legendary. His self-confidence and charm make his catalogue of conquests all too credible, and he forges an especially successful double act with the Leporello, another great bass, Ukrainian-born Alexander Kipnis, with their recitatives running at a breathless pace but never short-changing on meaning. Adding to the quality of the occasion are Rose Bampton’s vigorous Donna Anna, Jarmila Novotná’s expertly sung Elvira, Charles Kullman’s suave Don Ottavio and Brazilian soprano Bidú Sayão’s nonpareil of a Zerlina.

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Odd-man-out here is Johann Strauss’s A Night in Venice, firstly for being an operetta (hence acres of German dialogue) and secondly for its derivation – a Berlin radio production from 1938. Sonically, there’s some light surf on this particular Venetian lagoon, but nothing detracts seriously from the stylish singing of the versatile Marcel Wittrisch (Caramello), a tenor in the Tauber mould, the vivid Carla Spletter in the soubrette part of Annina, or the lyric baritone of Karl Schmitt-Walter as the Duke of Urbino..