The Very First recording of “Faust” in French is Impressive
Ardent collectors of opera on CD should visit the website of Marston Records. Ward Marston is considered the top person in the art of transferring very old recordings onto modern discs and his catalogue is filled with fascinating first—and often only—recorded versions of popular operas.
For example, the very first “Carmen” (1908) stars Emmy Destinn and is in German, as is the “Faust” (1908). “Carmen also appeared as the first recordings in French in 1911. And there is the only recording I know about of the French version of “Il Trovatore” (1912). The sound is ancient but thoroughly made as good as possible by Marston, the singing historic. And it is so good to hear French singers performing in French operas.
Then there are collections of famous singers such as Conchita Supervia, Feodor Chaliapin, Lotte Lehmann, and Rosa Ponselle. There are also discs such as “Three Tenors of the Opera Comique,” which offer even more variety.
There are plenty of non-operatic artists, but my specialty is opera and for me the Marston catalogue is a treasure trove of rare and even rarer recordings.
The rest of this report will concentrate on a French “Faust” recorded 1911-1912 and it will serve as a good example of what Marston has to offer.
It is 1912 and a French company named Pathé has issued a recording of Charles Gounod’s immensely popular opera “Faust.” It took up no less than 56 sides! But now, this very “Faust” is available on 3 somewhat more convenient CD sides in a boxed set from Marston Records. And it is a stunner.
Ward Marston describes in a well detailed booklet how Pathé made these recordings (in a most primitive way), a history of the opera “Faust,” and details about the singers heard on this recording. He did wonders with the sound, which is at times nearly as good as any early electric 78-rpm disc. The slightly noticeable surface noise only adds charm to what is essentially a time-trip to 17 years before electric recordings became possible.
Indeed, I was also amazed at how complete and well paced the performance is. Not only does it contain the Walpurgis Night scene with all of the ballet music (omitted from many an early LP version) but actually includes Marguerite’s Act IV lament, which is even today seldom heard in the opera house. Valentine’s aria, which was added by Gounod at the request of an English baritone, is not included.
Not too surprisingly, while much of the singing is quite good, there is little dramatic tension, for example, in the duel between Faust and Valentine. The conductor is Francois Ruhlmann.
Andre Gresse makes a lively Mephistopheles, Leon Beyle a sympathetic Faust, and Jeanne Campredon a fragile Marguerite. More important is the fact that this recording is a valuable document of how French opera was sung early in the last century before rapid transit brought international casts to every opera house, thereby neatly killing anything of a national style. Lovers of Gounod’s masterpiece will want to hear this performance, as will operatic vocal coaches and their students.
As a wonderful filler for disc 3, Marston has included 13 other recordings of arias and ensembles, including Valentine’s solo, that give even more examples of French singing at that point in history.
Search www.marstonrecords.com for this and other operatic treasures from a bygone age.