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Faust Met 1937 | IPCD 1097-2
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Reviews for IPCD 1097-2


Wilfred Pelletier, cond; Richard Crooks (Faust); Helen Jepson (Marguerite); Helen Olheim (Siébel); Ina Bourskaya (Marthe); Wilfred Engelmann (Wagner); Richard Bonelli (Valentin); Ezio Pinza (Méphistophélès); Metropolitan Op Ch & O • IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 1097-2 AAD (2 CDs: 151:17) Live: New York 3/20/1937

Ken Meltzer
FANFARE magazine
March /April 2018

My colleague Henry Fogel opens his liner notes for this new Immortal Performances release by exclaiming: “What a discovery this Faust is!” I agree wholeheartedly. It appears to be a first ever issue of a March 20, 1937 Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Charles Gounod’s operatic masterpiece, featuring a stellar cast and conductor, reproduced here in excellent sound for its source and vintage. I will go into further detail, but I’ll say at the outset that if you are at all interested in historic recordings of Gounod’s Faust, this belongs in your collection. Collectors may already own an April 6, 1940 Met broadcast from Boston, featuring the same conductor, and lead soprano, tenor, and bass. I own that performance courtesy of a 1997 Naxos Historical release, produced by Richard Caniell, the man who is also the driving force behind Immortal Performances. The 1940 broadcast is first-rate, but it is a true gift to have this 1937 performance capturing the principal artists in even fresher, more youthful voice.

The Faust is American tenor Richard Crooks. If you are not familiar with Crooks’s artistry (and I think that by all means, you should be), this Faust broadcast represents a superb introduction. Crooks possessed a beautiful lyric tenor voice that soared easily into the upper register, and possessed ample power for Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca, and Des Grieux’s St. Sulpice Scene in Massenet’s Manon. Crooks was an especially persuasive exponent of the French lyric tenor repertoire. His French diction was clear and idiomatic, and Crooks sang this repertoire with great style, and a wide-ranging palette of vocal colors and dynamics. Crooks was also a highly accomplished interpreter of songs (both classical and popular), and at his best, the tenor brought a Lieder singer’s nuance and detail to his operatic performances. The 1937 Faust broadcast is such an occasion. Rarely, if ever, have I heard a tenor perform the opera’s opening scene so persuasively. To depict the aged Faust, Gounod sets the music in a rather low tessitura, especially in comparison to the vocal writing after the title character undergoes his youthful transformation. Tenors at the outset of a long and challenging performance often approach this music in dutiful fashion. But Crooks is sensitive to every nuance as Faust reflects upon (and ultimately rejects) his life, finally invoking Satan. As the young Faust, Crooks is poetic, sensitive, passionate, and, in the end, overcome with remorse. It’s a marvelous demonstration of first-rate singing and vocal acting. Indeed, among vintage interpretations, it is a Faust worthy to be placed alongside Georges Thill (who recorded extended excerpts in 1929–30), and César Vezzani (the Faust in the complete 1930 HMV recording).

Ezio Pinza sang the role of Méphistophélès almost 60 times during his storied Met career. It’s not surprising that the role fit the Italian bass’s glorious vocal attributes, charisma, and handsome stage presence like a glove. Indeed, Pinza would have been a great success in the role had he chosen merely to stand and deliver one glorious tone after another. But if Pinza’s French diction is not quite as idiomatic as Crooks’s, the bass, too offers a stylish, nuanced performance with all kinds of delightful touches. Pinza never descends into bombast, slapstick, or caricature. Instead, we have a Devil who is by turns charming, seductive, menacing, and cruel. Pinza is also in superb voice, which is to say, one of the finest lyric bassos of the 20th century. Among historic recordings, Marcel Journet’s unforgettable Mephisto in the 1930 HMV Faust remains the touchstone, but Pinza’s is glorious in its own right. Helen Jepson brings numerous strengths to her convincing portrait of Marguerite. Jepson’s voice is attractive and secure, and she does an admirable job of portraying the tragic heroine’s transformation from an innocent girl to a passionate young woman, ultimately betrayed by her lover. What Jepson lacks, especially in comparison to Crooks and Pinza, is individuality of approach. This kind of contrast is similar to one I find in Jepson’s Desdemona in RCA’s late-1930s Otello excerpts with Giovanni Martinelli and Lawrence Tibbett. She is a Desdemona you’d be delighted to encounter any evening in the opera house. But Elisabeth Rethberg, who starred with Martinelli and Pinza in several Met Otello broadcasts, offers greater musical and dramatic insights. Still, Jepson hardly lets the side down in this Faust. Richard Bonelli is a rich-voiced, first-rate Valentin. Both Helen Olheim as Siébel and Ina Bourskaya as Marthe acquit themselves with distinction. Wilfred Pelletier conducts with an arresting respect and affection for the score. This was a time when Faust was both a staple of the repertoire, and generally considered a masterpiece. Pelletier approaches the work with that level of esteem, reveling in the orchestral colors, and pacing the opera in a manner that allows for the utmost expression, dramatic flow, and momentum. The performance features standard stage cuts, including omission of the entire Walpurgis Night scene.

Although the broadcast took place more than 80 years ago, the recorded sound as restored by Immortal Performances is very good indeed. Transcription disc surface noise is a constant, but not obtrusive presence. The voices emerge with welcome focus, presence, color, and appropriate balance with the orchestral forces. If you have any tolerance for historic recordings, the sound will pose no barrier to enjoyment of this superb performance. The accompanying booklet includes Henry Fogel’s informative and enthusiastic appreciation of the performance, a plot synopsis, artist photos and bios, and Richard Caniell’s recording notes. No texts or translations. I think any representative collection of historical Faust recordings should include the complete 1930 HMV recording, as well as the Thill excerpts. But this 1937 Met Faust is on a similarly lofty plane. Thanks to Immortal Performances for making it available, and in far more than adequate sound. Very highly recommended.


Wilfred Pelletier, cond; Richard Crooks (Faust); Helen Jepson (Marguerite); Helen Olheim (Siébel); Ina Bourskaya (Marthe); Wilfred Engelmann (Wagner); Richard Bonelli (Valentin); Ezio Pinza (Méphistophélès); Metropolitan Op Ch & O • IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 1097-2 AAD (2 CDs: 151:17) Live: New York 3/20/1937

James Altena
FANFARE magazine
March /April 2018

Immortal Performances has scored a coup here with a world premiere release of a 1937 Metropolitan Opera performance of Gounod’s deathless masterpiece. I say “deathless” because, despite dismissal of it by many critics as musically and dramatically shallow, it retains its continuing hold on public affections since its premiere over 150 years ago due to its abundance of inspired, memorable melodies—and I join the alleged hoi polloi in being an unapologetic fan of the score. As Stravinsky observed of Tchaikovsky, Gounod was supremely gifted as a melodist, and that covers a multitude of lesser musical sins.

There are of course other surviving broadcast performances of Ezio Pinza as Méphistofélès in previous circulation, from 1940 (Naxos), 1943 (various labels), and 1944 (Guild), with the last-named being out of print. The one from 1940 has virtually the same cast as this one, the two differences being Leonard Warren as Valentin and Thelma Votipka as Marthe. Although its sound quality is slightly superior, Richard Caniell has done magnificent work here in upgrading the sonics of his source. Some acetate side wear inevitably remains, but there is nothing intolerable for those used to live historical recordings, and the difference from 1940 is much less than one would initially expect.

So, then, is the singing in one markedly superior to the other? The issue tends to be one of fresher voices (this 1937 broadcast was only the second performance of a new production) versus the singers being more experienced in their roles. While the difference is not huge, I would give the edge overall to this 1937 performance for slighter fresher voices and superior casting. The big surprise is Richard Bonelli being the preferable Valentin to Leonard Warren. As magnificent a voice and singer as Warren was, French repertoire was simply not his Fach, and he sounds effortful, awkward, and clumsy in the role, while Bonelli dispatches everything with ease, finesse, and richly burnished tone. Bonelli’s superiority in the show-stopper aria “Avant de quitter ces lieux” is both evident and impressive. In the brief part of Marthe, it’s a draw between two fine singers in Ina Bourskaya and Thelma Votipka. Helen Olheim shines as Siebel in her act II aria; as Wagner, Wilfred Engelmann is only so-so.

Richard Crooks was rarely recorded, to posterity’s loss, and consequently he has been under-appreciated. This performance shows him not only to have been a first-rate lyric tenor vocally, but also a consummate stylist. He produces a true French tenor sound, with the requisite slightly nasal twang, and his pronunciation and diction in the language are immaculate. He invests his part with wonderfully subtle dynamic shadings, above all in “Salut! Demeure chaste et pure,” where he miraculously gives a totally musical rendition utterly free of any vulgarity, over-emoting, or playing to the gallery, capped with a lovely and perfectly high B♮ (the aria was taken down a half-step) that is gently floated rather than belted out. Only Jussi Björling tops him in this role among subsequent singers, and I frankly cannot think of another who is even his equal.

Prior to receiving this set, Helen Jepson was merely a name to me rather than a voice; I am now very happy to know the voice as well. While not as subtle an interpreter as her two male colleagues here, she has a beautiful, well-schooled, and well-supported voice and likewise displays excellent diction and pronunciation. Her coloratura technique is completely secure, and her womanly but not matronly tone is welcome in a part that often is cast with more girlish soubrettes. The ballad of the king of Thule and succeeding Jewel Song are expertly dispatched, and Jepson strikes just the right notes of fear, panic, and exaltation in the fourth act church scene and the fifth act finale in prison.

Ezio Pinza is of course a unique vocal phenomenon. Although his French is heavily accented, that is a trivial concern when set against his command of every nuance of his role. By turns suave, debonair, sly, defiant, mocking, menacing, and ultimately frustrated in defeat in his combat against heavenly forces, he is the very personification of Gounod’s demonic anti-hero. Arguably only Pol Plançon and Marcel Journet outrank him in the part, and that by very little; even the masterful Cesare Siepi does not quite approach him. He rivets attention not just in his big arias, but in all the smaller bits as well: his bantering dialogue with Faust and Marthe, or his gorgeous invocation of night just before Faust succeeds in winning Marguerite’s heart. Once heard, a collection of opera recordings without Pinza’s Méphistofélès becomes unthinkable.

In the pit, Wilfred Pelletier provides idiomatic and secure direction at virtually every turn, his only misstep being an almost marmoreal tempo for Bonelli’s “Avant de quitter ces lieux,” which makes the baritone’s masterful breath control in it all the more remarkable. The chorus and orchestra sing and play with verve and enthusiasm. Aside from the limited sonics, the one other regrettable aspect of this production is the observance of the usual theater cuts, with act IV, scene I and the act V Walpurgis Night scene and ballet (the latter admittedly being of doubtful authenticity, possibly composed by Léo Delibes instead) all omitted. Milton Cross’s broadcast commentary is preserved but separately tracked for convenience. As always, Immortal Performances provides a lavish booklet with an extensive background essay, full-scale performer bios, and recording notes. Once again, this label has scored a winner; enthusiastically recommended to all aficionados of historic opera performances.

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