Spotlight on Faustby Joseph So
/ May 1, 2012
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The quintessential grand opera, Gounod’s Faust enjoyed immense popularity in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. It was the opera that opened the Metropolitan Opera in 1883. Today, Faust remains the eighth most frequently performed opera at the Met, with over 730 performances before the 2008 season. A check of www.operabase.com shows that from 2005-2010, Faust received a respectable 111 performances, good for 35th place in the popularity sweepstakes. While it pales in comparison with The Magic Flute (451), La traviata (447) and Carmen (424), Faust beats some of the greats: Die Walküre (110), Der Rosenkavalier (104), Norma (102), Tristan (102) and Don Carlos (99).
The popularity of Faust is easy to understand. It has some of the most glorious music ever written for the lyric stage. Who can resist the elegant “Salut, demeure chaste et pure” or Marguerite’s sparkling Jewel Song? The Garden Scene, with its perfumed melodies, is the pinnacle of Romanticism. To the religiously inclined, the denouement strikes the fear of God into one’s heart. That said, it should be noted that Faust, deemed “old fashioned” by the critics, isn’t quite as popular these days. Perhaps it’s the pronounced religiosity that accounts for the decline, given the more relaxed 21st-century sensibilities towards sex. Still, with great voices, a fine orchestra, and an imaginative stage director, Faust remains a thrilling evening at the opera.
The Opéra de Montréal’s new production is sure to please, with a strong cast starring the marvelous soprano Mary Dunleavy as Marguerite and the youthful bass Alexander Vinogradov as Mephistopheles. Similarly, Canadian baritone Étienne Dupuis’ beautiful lyric timbre and striking stage presence are ideal for Valentin.
An additional bonus for the Montreal audience is the appearance of the father and son tenor duo, Guy and Antoine Bélanger, as the Old and Young Faust. To be sure, father-son singers are quite common in the opera world. In Canada alone, we have Raoul and André Jobin, André and Richard Turp, Louis and Gino Quilico, and Victor and Russell Braun. Some have even appeared together on the same stage, for example, in a Canadian Opera Company Don Giovanni in 1988, Gino Quilico was Don Giovanni and his father Louis was Leporello. Ten years ago, when I interviewed baritone Russell Braun for an article in La Scena Musicale, he mentioned that he sang a number of times with his father, Victor Braun: “I sang Pelléas with dad in Salzburg and he sang my brother Golaud. It was an intense and constructive period in our lives. My son Benjamin was born at that time, so this event marked dad as a grandfather!” They also sang together again in a 1998 Ariadne auf Naxos in Chicago, when Victor was the Musiklehrer and Russell was the Harlequin.
In Montreal, it will likely be an operatic first: father and son playing the same role on the same stage, the same evening. The aging philosopher (Guy Bélanger) appears at the beginning of the opera, lamenting his lost youth (Rien! En vain j’interroge). He curses God and wants to kill himself but Mephistopheles appears with the image of Marguerite to tempt him to sell his soul. Faust drinks the potion and is magically transformed into a handsome youth (Antoine Bélanger). With the father-son duo, Montreal audiences can look forward to an extra dose of dramatic verisimilitude.
Faust is not just grand in tunes; it’s also grand in length. An uncut version makes for a long evening at the opera. In the past, it was common practice to make the occasional judicious cut, especially of the ballet and the Walpurgisnacht scene. Sometimes Siébel’s second aria is also cut. This opera poses daunting vocal challenges for the principals. The title role is certainly one of the most exacting—but most rewarding—tenor roles in all of opera. It requires a sweet timbre, elegant phrasing, dashing stage presence, a solid legato, long breath line, and an upper extension capable of a pianissimo high C. An ideal Marguerite should possess a pure, expressive lyric soprano for the Jewel Song and the Garden Scene, yet have enough vocal heft for the dramatic denouement. Mephistopheles is one of the greatest bass roles, on par with Boris Godunov, Filippo in Don Carlo and the Three Villains in Hoffmann, among others. The role of Valentin, though brief, is Gounod’s gift to the lyric baritone; a good Valentin never fails to bring down the house with “Avant de quitter ces lieux.”
The discography of Faust is extraordinarily rich, although recordings have become less frequent in recent years. Basses including the likes of Marcel Journet, Boris Christoff, Cesare Siepi, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Ezio Pinza, Samuel Ramey, and more recently Bryn Terfel, have left memorable souvenirs as Mephistopheles. Among notable singers in the role of Faust are Jussi Björling, Giuseppe di Stefano, Nicolai Gedda, Francisco Araiza in the past, and Roberto Alagna, Rolando Villazón and Jonas Kaufmann in the current generation. Victoria de los Angeles was a celebrated Marguerite, as were Joan Sutherland, Mirella Freni and Kiri Te Kanawa. More recently, Soile Isokoski and Angela Gheorghiu have been wonderful. My recommended audio recording is the 1953 EMI André Cluytens conducting de los Angeles, Christoff and Gedda. My second choice is the exciting if unidiomatic 1966 Bonynge on Decca starring Sutherland, Corelli and Ghiaurov. On video, the best choice is the 2004 Covent Garden performances with Antonio Pappano conducting Alagna, Gheorghiu, Keenlyside, and in particular, the extraordinary Mephisto of Bryn Terfel.
Gounod’s Faust: May 19, 22, 24 and 26