About this Recording
8.111083-85 - GOUNOD: Faust (Bjorling, Siepi, Kirsten) (1950)

Charles Gounod (1818–1893)


Charles Gounod achieved great acclaim and popularity in addition to musical influence in France during the nineteenth century. In no way was he a radical compared to his compatriot Berlioz but, recognising his limitations, stuck to what he knew best. He wrote in total fourteen operas of which Faust is the fourth. Derived from Michel Carré’s three-act play Faust et Marguerite, the scenario was in turn itself derived from Gérard de Nerval’s translation of the first part of Goethe’s Faust. Gounod’s librettists Jules Barbier and Carré fashioned a varied and profound dramatic work which, if by today’s world it comes over as conventional and sentimental, proved immensely popular with nineteenth century audiences. For the composer’s part the score is well crafted and contains a wealth of melodic charm. There are telling vocal rôles for Marguerite (even if she does not appear until the end of Act 1), Faust, the marvellously sinister Méphistophélès and Valentin. Originally the score also contained spoken dialogue which made the work seem less grand opera than opéra comique at the first performance in the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris on 19 March 1859. Even before the première, several entire numbers were cut and the famous Soldiers’ Chorus (Act 3 Scene 2) was added at a late stage. Reacting to criticism, Gounod then composed sung recitatives that were added the following year for performances in Strasbourg, Rouen and Bordeaux. For the 1859 production at the Paris Opéra the composer added the obligatory ballet music. Thereafter in its 1869 format the opera became a huge success in major houses throughout the world for the next fifty years. In Paris, for example, it had five new productions between 1875 and 1975.

The title rôle demands much of its interpreter both vocally and dramatically. The character at the opening of the opera is an old man who is then transformed to become youthful and poetic once more. The vocal part requires sweetness, purity and evenness of tone, delicacy and elegance, declamatory power, and a good well-placed top C for the big aria ‘Salut, demeure’. For the rôle of Marguerite the contrast of a finely-tuned coloratura technique for the florid ‘Jewel Song’ must be allied to a lyrical quality for the Garden Scene. As for the sinister and satanic Méphistophélès, the performer must be overbearing, delicate, and display a considerable range of acting talents, in addition to possessing all traits and colours in his vocal palette. An excess of any of these qualities and the interpretation can appear wildly over the top. Then the comparatively minor baritone rôle of Valentin requires much of its performer: a good top register, much style and presence. His aria in Act 1 Scene 2 (Avant de quitter ces lieux) was composed for the English baritone Charles Santley when the opera was given in London in 1864. The first production at the Metropolitan Opera House took place on 22 October 1883. Thereafter it has remained in the repertoire most of that time.

The 1950–51 season saw a change in the overall administration of the Metropolitan Opera House with the retirement of the Canadian tenor Edward Johnson (1878–1959) after fifteen years in charge. He was succeeded by the Austrian-born but British-naturalised Rudolf Bing (1902–1997). He had come to the post by way of Darmstadt (1928–30), Glyndebourne (1934, General Manager 1936–49) and the position of artistic manager of the Edinburgh Festival (1947–49). His 22 years in charge at the Metropolitan saw many changes, considerable development of both native and foreign singers, as well as the introduction of black artists through Marian Anderson in 1955, and a move to the new theatre in the Lincoln Center in 1962.

A feature of this 1950 Faust performance was the inclusion of the Walpurgis Night ballet for the first time since the 1917–18 season. The years of omission had been decided upon by earlier managements who were of the opinion that this scene, which the composer added ten years after the opera’s première, was an afterthought.

The Swedish tenor Jussi Björling (1911–1960) was born in Stora Tuna in the district of Dalarma, and as a boy toured and recorded with the family quartet, in addition to visiting the United States. His adult teachers were his father David, John Forsell and the Scottish tenor Joseph Hislop. He was a member of the Royal Opera in Stockholm from 1930 onwards but two years later began his international career in Germany, followed by Vienna (1936), the Metropolitan Opera in New York (1938) and Covent Garden the following year. Whilst Björling was widely regarded as the foremost ‘Italian’ tenor of his day in the spinto rôles of Puccini and Verdi, he also excelled in French opera. His work was respected for its artistic qualities—his vocal quality was very consistent over its entire range, even if his acting ability was somewhat stilted. He recorded extensively from the mis-1930s until his early death in 1960. His increasingly poor health in later years was caused by heart problems. His ten complete studio made operatic recordings include Il trovatore (Naxos 8.110240–41), Pagliacci (8.110258) and Cavalleria Rusticana (8.110261). The rôle of Faust was one that Björling sang throughout his career after 1934. He married the soprano Anna-Lisa Berg in 1935 and they appeared together both in concert and stage performances.

The vibrantly voiced Italian bass Cesare Siepi was born in Milan in 1923. After study at that city’s Conservatorio, he made his début as Sparafucile in Rigoletto in Schio in 1941. In 1943, however, he fled to Switzerland, because of his strong anti-Fascist views. Five years later he first appeared at La Scala, Milan, as Ramfis in Aida, Padre Guardiano in La forza del destino and Zaccaria in Nabucco. Siepe was chosen by Toscanini to take part in the Boito celebration at La Scala as Mefistofele and Simon Mago in Nerone. He continued with the Company as a regular member for four years before singing at the Metropolitan in New York as Philip II in Don Carlos on the opening night of Rudolf Bing’s tenure in November 1950. He was a valued member at the Met for 23 seasons singing 379 performances of 18 rôles. These included Figaro in Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Boris Godunov, Gurnemanz in Parsifal and Orovesco in Norma. He appeared at the Salzburg Festival (1953–58), San Francisco (1954), Covent Garden (1962–73), Spain and South America. Siepi’s diversity was such that he appeared in a Broadway musical in 1962 entitled Bravo Giovanni and recorded an album of Cole Porter songs. His career was varied and long so that he was still appearing in Italy until the 1980s. He possessed a smooth, rich and evenly produced voice allied to excellent musicianship and a splendid stage presence. He recorded extensively for a number of labels.

The American baritone Frank Guarrera was born in Philadelphia in 1923. Studying with Richard Bonelli at the Curtis Institute in his native city, he made his début as Silvio in Pagliacci at the New York City Opera in 1947. His European appearance was as Zurga in Les Pêcheurs de perles at La Scala, Milan the following year, also singing Fanvel in Acts 3 and 4 of Nerone under Toscanini. That same season he made his Metropolitan Opera début as Escamillo in Carmen and over the next 28 seasons sang over four hundred performances with the Company. In addition he sang with the New York City Opera. His repertoire included all the principal Italian baritone rôles. He also sang in Chicago, San Francisco, London and Paris. His most celebrated recording is as Ford in Verdi’s Falstaff, recorded in 1950 under Toscanini, in addition to taking part in a series of Metropolitan Opera recordings for the Book-of-the-Month Club. After retiring from singing he later taught at the Curtis Institute.

The American soprano Anne Bollinger (1919–1962) was born in Lewiston, Ohio, studying first with Rosie Miller and later Lotte Lehmann. She came to prominence in March 1948 singing in Bach’s St Matthew Passion in Boston under Serge Koussevitzky. Making her Metropolitan Opera début as Barbarina in Le nozze di Figaro in January 1949, she sang with the Company for six seasons until 1953. There her rôles included Tebaldo in Don Carlo, Siebel in Faust, one of the Zaubermädchen in Parsifal, Emma in Khovanshchina and Frasquita in Carmen. In 1953 she joined the Hamburg State Opera for four years where her rôles included Pamina in Die Zauberflöte in 1955. She then returned to the United States before her premature death at the age of 39.

The mezzo-soprano Thelma Votipka (1906–1972) was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and studied at Oberlin College. Making her début as the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro with the American Opera Company in 1927, she later appeared in Chicago (1929–30) and San Francisco (1938–49 and 1952). Her first rôle at the Metropolitan was as Flora in La traviata in December 1935. During her 29-year career at this house she sang in over one thousand performances, primarily in the comprimario repertoire: for example, the Witch in Hansel und Gretel, Frasquita in Carmen and Marianne in Der Rosenkavalier. She died in New York.

One of the most admired spinto voices of her age, the American soprano Dorothy Kirsten (1917–1992) was born in Montclair, New Jersey. First studying at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, she later worked with Astolfo Pescia in Rome. Returning to the United States she made her début as Pousette in Manon in 1940. This was followed by appearances with San Carlo Opera, Washington DC as Micaëla in Carmen (1942), New York City Opera as Violetta in La traviata (1944), and San Francisco (1947). Her first rôle at the Metropolitan was as Mimì in La bohéme in December 1945 and during the next 27 seasons she sang 165 performances of 18 rôles. These included Butterfly, Tosca, Minnie in La fanciulla del West, both Manons, Marguerite and Louise, in the last being coached by the composer. Her official retirement was in December 1975 but she later returned on a number of occasions thereafter. In addition to radio, television and concert appearances, Kirsten also took part in several films, the most notable being The Great Caruso with Mario Lanza (1951). She appeared in Russia in 1962. Her recordings show her to have been a well-schooled artist with an excellent technique.

The bass Lawrence Davidson was a member of Metropolitan for eighteen seasons from the 1940s onwards, mainly in comprimario rôles that included Benoit in La bohème, Lamoral in Arabella and Antonio in Le nozze di Figaro. Very occasionally he appeared as Alberich in Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung, the Sacristan in Tosca, Varlaam in Boris, Beckmesser in Meistersinger and Klingsor in Parsifal. He appeared as the Keeper of the Madhouse in the first Metropolitan Opera production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in 1953. He was also cantor at the Temple Emanu-El in Utica, New York State.

The Italian-born conductor Fausto Cleva (1902–1971) was born in Trieste. After studies at the Conservatorio in his native city and Milan, he made his début conducting La traviata in Carcano, near Milan, before emigrating to the United States in 1920, becoming an American citizen in 1931. He joined the musical staff of the Metropolitan later that year and for twenty years was an assistant conductor and later chorus-master before making his official conducting début in February 1942. He later became closely involved with Cincinnati Summer Opera, of which he was musical director from 1934 until 1963, in addition to positions in Chicago (1944–46) and San Francisco. Following his return to the Met in 1950 he conducted in excess of six hundred performances of thirty operas, mainly from the French and Italian repertory. His work was marked by great attentiveness to his singers. He conducted Rigoletto with the Swedish Royal Opera at the Edinburgh Festival in 1959. He recorded for a variety of labels, mainly as an accompanist for singers. He died in Athens while conducting Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.

Malcolm Walker

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