Gounod – Faust (1859)
Faust – Benjamin Bernheim
Marguerite – Véronique Gens
Siebel – Juliette Mars
Dame Marthe – Ingrid Perruche
Méphistophélès – Andrew Foster-Williams
Valentin – Jean-Sébastien Bou
Wagner/un mendiant – Anas Séguin
Vlaams Radio Koor, Les Talens Lyriques / Christophe Rousset.
Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, France. Thursday, June 14th, 2018.
We owe the opportunity to hear tonight’s performance of the 1859 version of Gounod’s Faust to the Palazzetto Bru Zane, an organization that has done much to promote French music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This isn’t, strictly speaking, the original Faust. In an interesting note in the program book, available via the theatre’s website, Paul Prévost mentions how it was necessary to orchestrate passages that had been lost over the years, while others were impossible to locate. Tonight’s single concert performance was mounted in tandem with recording sessions due for release next year – presumably in the handsome book and CD format that the Palazzetto is noted for.
This Faust is a very different beast to the grand opéra we have grown up knowing. For one, rather than being completely sung throughout, here the musical numbers are punctuated by dialogue. The dialogues were fluently delivered tonight, the cast coached by the notable stage director Marc Paquien. Furthermore, two of Gounod’s greatest hits are missing – Valentin’s ‘avant de quitter ces lieux’, that favourite audition aria of baritones everywhere, and the rousing soldiers’ chorus ‘gloire immortelle à nos aïeux’. Instead, there is additional music in the form of an extended death scene for Valentin and a jaunty number for the returning soldiers, ‘déposons nos armes’. It makes for a fascinating listen. So much is familiar, much more unrecognizable. It didn’t feel that the dialogue held up the action, but rather that it provided a key way of developing characters and personalities. Indeed, the character of Dame Marthe was developed more through the dialogue than through the music, providing comic relief also through a brighter soprano register rather than the superannuated contralto we usually hear. The conclusion, all brass and bells, also contained a few awkward transitions from the closing trio, compared to the more familiar later version. Often it felt that numbers were more fragmented, less fully developed and argued, though there was never any sense of the work feeling particularly episodic as a result. Instead, we got a fully dramatic and vivid experience.
The musical values were exceptionally high tonight. This was a performance that lived through the text. Indeed, it felt so revelatory because the cast brought out so much more in the words than one often hears. Not only was the text clear, but it meant something – the characters were brought to life as much through the sung text as through the dialogue. In doing so, it gave the evening undeniable impact. The sonorities produced by Les Talens Lyriques were absolutely fascinating. The gut strings seemingly capable of a kaleidoscopic range of colour, from the austere darkness of the opening to the bright and generous sunlight of the apotheosis. The solo clarinettist (Nicola Boud) was particularly piquant in a wind section full of personality. The horns were deliciously raspy in their interjections. Occasionally, some of the string intonation was wayward – the room was very warm and this will certainly have had an impact on the tuning. Christophe Rousset led a reading that was based in a strong rhythmic foundation yet he wasn’t afraid to pull back and luxuriate in the sound in places. He made some judicious use of vibrato and tempi always felt well chosen. The 36 voices of the Vlaams Radio Koor were absolutely sensational – such precision of tuning and ensemble. The tone was warm yet balanced, the gentlemen making a huge noise and the ladies exceptionally well blended.
This was also an extraordinarily stylish performance and in many respects, with the clarity of the diction in addition to the ‘new’ music, it felt like hearing the work for the first time. Benjamin Bernheim was a superb Faust. The voice is so bright and well placed, seemingly carrying on air through the room. The voice also opens up thrillingly on top, due to that exceptionally resonant and forward placement, producing high notes that seem enormous and overwhelm the listener. His ‘salut demeure’ was absolutely ravishing, the high C sung in a perfectly sustained voix mixte, the words always front and centre. Even in a concert setting, Bernheim created a fully-rounded character, bringing out Faust’s ennui, passion and remorse. A remarkable piece of singing.
Véronique Gens’ soprano is a fuller, more rounded voice than one often hears in this music. That warmth in the middle made her Marguerite feel more of a tragédienne than one often encounters, thereby bringing out that heartbreak of her character’s journey with much more immediacy than the coquettish ingénue we usually hear. Her Marguerite was a woman of deep feeling, brought out through that peerlessly beautiful instrument. The fullness and roundness in the middle was powerfully brought to the fore in her big Act 3 scene but she also had the agility to turn the corners in the ‘air des bijoux’, demonstrating a genuine trill and opening up thrillingly on top. Gens made so much of the text in a way that I have never heard the role sung before – the words genuinely meant something. The evening was capped with a magnificent account of the closing trio, Gens soaring gloriously over the orchestral tumult.
As the third component of the trio, Andrew Foster-Williams gave us an extrovert Méphistophélès of undeniable personality and in impeccable French, both in the dialogue and in the sung numbers. His rustic baritone, slightly dry and narrow in tone, felt ideally matched to the music. He caressed the text with the love of a native speaker and so much of what he did was based in that clarity of diction. A performance of genuine wit and personality. Jean-Sébastien Bou sang Valentin’s death scene in a remarkably handsome baritone with an open top and steely core. There was a warmth and generosity to his singing that I found deeply satisfying. Juliette Mars brought her copper, soprano-ish mezzo to Siebel, her ‘faites-lui mes aveux’ beguilingly sung. Anas Séguin’s baritone also gave much pleasure as Wagner, a compact column of sound, absolutely solid and even in emission.
This was a very special evening. Getting to hear Gounod’s early thoughts was a privilege but the impact was heightened by the sheer quality of the performances throughout the cast and the clarity of the text, making even the most familiar passages seem newly-minted and new born. This was music-making that felt that it genuinely meant something. The stylistic mastery and excellence of the solo and choral singing gave it an undeniable immediacy. A splendid evening in the theatre and raises much anticipation for the upcoming commercial release.
If you value the writing on this site, you can help expand its coverage by joining the Patreon community and helping to support independent writing on opera. Alternatively, you can support operatraveller.com with a one-off gesture via paypal.