Source: Studio recording made in Paris at Salle de la Mutualite on September 23-27, 29, 30 and October 1-4, 6-9, 1958 and at Eglise Saint-Roch on December 4, 1958, then issued on Lp by EMI in 1959.
Sound: State of the art analog stereo for 1958. (This recording was made to cash in on the new stereo craze only a few years after virtually the same cast had made a widely appreciated mono version.) A digital remastering in 2003 has been generally successful. By present standards, the sound is slightly dry and compressed, but still pleasing. Some sharp-eared persons have noted distortion on the highest notes and occasional audible tape joins. I do not search out such things and none have forced themselves upon my attention.
Text: This recording presents the standard performing text, dating back to the 1869 production at the Paris Opera. "Faust" was originally premiered in Paris in the form of an opera comique, that is, with dialogue separating musical numbers. In 1860, Gounod having had second thoughts, banished the spoken dialogue and wrote musical recitatives. In 1863, the singer who had sung Valentin at the London premiere had earned such success than Gounod wrote him an aria, "Avant de quitter ces lieux," as a reward. In 1869 came the big payday of a production at the Paris Opera, so the endless, dreary ballet sequence in Act V was added to meet the inflexible requirements of that house.
Cast: Faust - Nicolai Gedda; Marguerite - Victoria de los Angeles; Mephistopheles - Boris Christoff; Valentin - Ernest Blanc; Siebel - Liliane Berton; Marthe - Rita Gorr; Wagner - Victor Autran. Conductor: Andre Cluytens with the Orchestre et Choeurs du Theatre National de l'Opera.
It has been said that all that is required to make "Faust " a great opera is the presence of the greatest singers in the world. Of all the recordings that I have heard, the one that comes closest to that mark is a broadcast from the old Metropolitan in the early 1950s that offers Jussi Bjorling, Dorothy Kirsten and Cesare Siepi. [All you linguistic purists, just sit down, put your heads between your knees and breathe deeply. You'll be fine in a few minutes.] Bjorling is ... Bjorling--thrilling! Kirsten is dramatically involved, sings beautifully and offers a wholly unexpected trill. Siepi is a wonderfully lyric and suave Mephistopheles of a sort not to be found today. Alas, this being a Met broadcast, it was captured by microphones apparently made out of old tuna fish cans. The deplorable chorus was absolutely overwhelmed by the requirements of the score but they made up for it by vigorously stomping their feet on the echoing stage. And Kirsten's King of Thule song was accompanied by the world's most creaky, clackety spinning wheel. [That "Faust" is available up here in Canada, at least, on a set recently issued in the Naxos Great Operatic Performances series.]
Critical opinion about this early stereo version of "Faust" is all over the place, as can be seen in these Amazon reviews and elsewhere, too. The good, grey, English magazine, The Gramophone gives a rather grudging nod to this set as the best of a ho-hum lot because it has a "Mephistopheles with the presence of Christoff and a Marguerite with the charm and pathos of los Angeles." I can't fault that statement. Christoff is all presence. He is a member of the harsh, snarling, roaring school established by Chaliapin. And he's jolly good at it, too! Though I think that Siepi, as a suave, seductive mephistopheles, easily sings rings around him, it cannot be doubted that Christoff's approach is today's accepted style. The Marguerite of De los Angeles is undoubtedly sweet and charming, but she is too much a passive victim for my taste. Given the choice, I'd always take Kirsten. Gedda was a brilliant tenor, elegant, nuanced, suave, a fine linguist and--dare I say it?--intelligent. Nevertheless, he lacked intensity. Unlike Bjorling or, say, Corelli, he doesn't carry his audience over those wonderful tenorial uplands that sometimes rise out of Gounod's sugary tunes.
Gedda, De los Angeles and Christoff provide an early example of today's jet-setting international stars. The remainder of the forces assembled for this "Faust" are French, through and through. The excellent Rita Gorr can only be described as luxury casting for the small part of Marthe. As Valentin, Ernest Blanc is, as always, good but never the best. Liliane Berton has drawn some high praise for her Siebel, but I find her too thin of voice and lacking in fire.
Andre Cluytens served for many years as music director of the Opera-Comique in Paris. Some find his conducting here to be loving, experienced and direct. I find it competent but uninspired. This recording was made at just about the last moment that the characteristically French sound of the orchestra and the chorus held out against the current international style.
All in all, this remains the best choice for a recording of "Faust" in more or less decent sound. There still remains plenty of room, however, for something better to come along.