As you may have inferred from the names of the characters, this is an Italian-language recording of Faust. Made using the acoustic process back in 1920, it wasn’t even the first recording of the opera, having been preceded by a 1908 German recording conducted by Bruno Seidler-Winckler. It wasn’t even the second recording of the opera, since Pathé issued a 1912 French recording led by Francois Ruhlmann. It was followed in 1930 by an English-language Faust , led by Sir Thomas Beecham. Four recordings of Faust in four different languages at a time when a complete opera recording could cost some folks a week’s salary – if that doesn’t testify to the opera’s former popularity, I don’t know what does. For most people, I suspect, the first “real” recording was the 1931 French version led by Henri B?sser, which holds up well even today. The premiere of Faust took place in 1859. Note that all the recordings above were done closer to that time than to the present.

Unfortunately, I can’t say that this 1920 performance’s closer proximity to Gounod’s day proves anything as far as vocal style and tradition means. Like all early Fausts , it’s not really complete; I would call it the standard cut edition you might have heard in a theater any time during the last century, with the addition of some short excisions that were probably due to limitations in the length of the 78 sides. I wasn’t expecting to hear Margarita’s “Spinning Song” or Siebel’s aria that follows it, so their omission was no surprise; and I assumed that the Walpurgis Nacht would be missing—no surprise there, either. Smaller cuts include the second verse of “The King of Thule,” a slightly curtailed love scene, and the Prelude to act IV, which actually starts with the entrance of Faust and Mefistofele (I might as well use the Italian names). There are also very brief cuts in the Kermesse, the Soldiers’ Chorus, the final trio, and the closing scene. Obviously, there are alterations in the melodic line to accommodate the Italian text and, just as obviously, Gounod’s orchestration had to be revised to deal with the peculiarities of the acoustic process (for example, there’s no organ in the Church Scene). I was surprised at how easily I adjusted to this. The chorus had to be diminished in size because you can only fit so many folks under a recording horn. Yet, one even gets used to that. Divine Art seems to have done its job well.

You probably have never heard of any of these singers. The only one I could find out anything about as the Mefistofele, Fernando Autori, who, despite his presence on this recording, didn’t actually sing at La Scala until 1924. He was primarily known for buffo roles and had enough of a career to sing elsewhere in Europe. The annotator may have had better sources, but even he draws some blanks about such things as birth years when dealing with the rest of the cast, and apparently knows only a little more than I do, which is nothing. Most of the singers have rapid little vibratos, but their voices are not unattractive, just not particularly striking. Autori has a dark voice and fairly smooth delivery; assuming he had enough volume, I don’t doubt that he would have been a passable Mefistofele, since he isn’t crude and heavy. As Margarita, Gemma Bosini’s voice often takes on a charming, girlish quality that suggests her character’s innocence. It’s not a ravishing instrument, but a serviceable one, and not particularly shrill. Giuliano Romagnoli comes across sounding like a lyric tenor, so I assume he was (the acoustic process tended to cut everyone down to size). His performance of the act II cavatina is the right weight but overheated, and sometimes he injects too much “passion” into his love scene. He doesn’t ruin the performance, but that’s about all. Was it a money problem that caused so many early 78s to be made with second-line casts? In 1920, there were singers in Italy who could have given us a Faust for the ages. This one exercises its fascination because of its age, not its quality. There is an Italian libretto and such information about the singers as the annotator could scrape up.

***Mr Miller later acknowledged the availability of English and French librettos on the CD

—James Miller