Recorded acoustically in 1920 and sung in Italian by Italian singers this issue could easily be passed over as of limited interest – possibly only for historical freaks. I am one of those – I wouldn’t have opted for the set otherwise – but even I have to admit that it was a very pleasant surprise. One of the first notes I scribbled down on my review pad was ‘Superb sound!!’
I must be joking, mustn’t I? Actually no. Readers only familiar with state-of-the-art digital stereo recordings will probably frown at the sound here and quickly turn it off, but anyone who has ever heard the feeble, scrawny sound of the orchestra, the thin, undernourished tone of the singers and the appetizing sound of someone frying bacon in a nearby kitchen will sit up and reach for the booklet: Is it really 1920?
I have to qualify my verdict. The orchestra can never be mistaken for a modern one, the dynamics are limited but instrumental details are well caught, drums and trumpets in the opening of act II lifelike, the chorus has great impact, the singers leap out of the speakers with surprising realism, even in the quartet (CD 2 tr. 2-3) the voices are well separated, and the cook has closed the kitchen door. Andrew Rose has worked wonders with the original shellacs that obviously were of exceptional quality for their time in the first place. With very little adaptability it should be possible to enjoy the performance, once one has adjusted to the limitations.
That it is sung in Italian may seem as a drawback but one should bear in mind that the practice to perform operas in the original language is a rather late invention. This set, issued on twenty 12” discs, was no doubt intended for the Italian market. Italian is of course an eminently singable language and Italians singing in the vernacular give a stamp of authenticity. This is what it sounded like at La Scala around 1920.
Probably the cuts in the score were also those applied at performances eighty years ago. For so long an opera on shellacs it is fairly little truncated: the ballet scene is gone – no great loss – and there are minor cuts in the waltz, love duet, soldiers’ chorus and three in the final scene. The act IV prelude and Marguerite’s recitative is omitted.
Carlo Sabajno – who wasn’t named on the original labels – was a splendid conductor who recorded a considerable number of complete operas in the 1920s and 1930s. He secures fine playing and singing from the La Scala forces and paces the music as well as any of his competitors.
About the solo singing there may be some reservations, but also these are relatively marginal. The little known Giuliano Romagnoli in the title role sacrifices Gallic elegance for Italian passion in the title role but he is no mean singer. His legato isn’t always the best, he tends to over-emphasize in the Di Stefano manner and his high C in the cavatina is ugly but he manages a fine scaling down on the final note and his impassioned singing in the duet Il se fait tard is truly engaging. His Marguerite, Gemma Bosini, who besides this Faust also has a complete Bohème to her credit, has an agreeable voice and more sense of style. She sings a fine Jewel song and in the duet she is heartrendingly vulnerable.
The star of the performance is however Fernando Autori as Mephistopheles. He has a magnificent black-tinted bass and his is a truly riveting reading of the role, expressive and dynamic. His rondo in act II (CD 1 tr. 11) is the tour de force it should be and altogether his is one of the most impressive devils on any recording.
In the minor roles veteran Napoleone Limonta is a rather wooden Wagner while Adolfo Pacini has a splendid voice but totally lacks light and shade in Valentin’s Avant de quitter ces lieux. He makes amends however on his return in act IV and his death scene is deeply involved. Nelda Garrone is a rather squally Marta but Gilda Timitz is an excellent Siebel and her/his flower song (CD 1 tr. 17) is one of the highlights of the whole performance.
André Cluytens’ stereo remake of Faust from 1959 with los Angeles, Gedda and Christoff (now in EMI’s GROC series) is still the recommendable ‘modern’ recording and there are several good alternatives, but readers with some historical interest will find a lot to admire on this almost 90-year-old surprisingly listenable version – and Fernando Autori’s Mephistopheles must be heard.
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