Charles Gounod’s "Faust": first performance using the New Edition
The French musicologist Paul Prévost sets new standards with his edition of Gounod’s Faust, the first to be based on the previously unavailable composition autograph and the printed edition of 1860. He has painstakingly detailed all the stages of work of the through-composed version which was performed for many decades at the Paris Opéra from 1869. The result of his researches can be heard from 10 May at the Nederlandse Opera Amsterdam. Alex Ollé’s new production is conducted by Marc Minkowski. At the Baden-Baden Whitsun Festival Thomas Hengelbrock conducts Gounod’s masterpiece for the first time, also using the new edition. Bartlett Sher’s new production receives its first performance on 6 June. There is also a spectacular line-up of singers including Charles Castronovo (Faust), Erwin Schrott (Méphistophélès) and Angela Gheorghiu (Marguerite).
[t]akte: Faust has a complicated reception history, reflected in several different versions. What should we know about the performance history of the opera?
Paul Prévost: Charles Gounod wrote about Roméo et Juliette: “It seems to me that the inclusion of recitatives should be the subject of a separate version, as with Faust, and that this by no means puts the existence of a first version which contains dialogue into question – for all sorts of reasons I don’t want just one single version” (letter dated 28 September 1866). This statement led to the idea of not mixing the versions with spoken dialogues, performed at the Paris Théâtre-Lyrique between 1859 and 1866, with the versions which are entirely sung, which have come down to us.
Let’s briefly recall the history of these versions of Faust. The first performance with recitatives took place in Strasbourg in February 1860, and it was in this form that the work began to be performed in French theatres then throughout the world. One exception to this was the French-speaking city of Brussels, where for a long time a version including spoken dialogues was performed. This 1860 version served as the basis for the second edition of the vocal score and the full score, both published in Paris. Subsequently, several relatively minor cuts and alterations were made in this version, the best-known of which is undoubtedly the addition of Valentin’s Cavatina in Act 2. Gounod wrote this in 1863 for London, but refused to include it in Parisian productions of the opera. Most of the alterations affected Act 4. Siebel’s Romance was cut and replaced by another number which was also later cut; the order of the numbers was changed, and there were various transpositions.
It is therefore difficult to identify a final or “official” form of the work; it has proved impossible to choose between the composer’s original project and a history of constant transformations. However, we do have the version which was used for the first performance of the work at the Paris Opéra in 1869. We frequently read that Gounod was not in the least concerned with this advancement to Grand Opera, although he did compose a Divertissement (ballet music and aria) for this occasion. In the corresponding prompt book, there are several indications of the presence of the librettists and the composer at the preparatory meetings and rehearsals.
The 1869 version, to a certain extent crystallised by the event of the performance, was therefore chosen as the primary source for the new edition. Of course, all users are free to recreate other versions of the work using our introduction and the critical apparatus. In line with a principle adopted for the L’Opéra français series, reorderings have been made easier because alternative versions have been included in the chronology of the work, so that it’s possible to avoid unnecessary page turns. We have included the additional bars in each case, so the user can proceed page by page and simply has to skip short passages in a few places to establish a different version.
Were new sources available to you for this edition?
The autograph manuscript acquired by the Bibliothèque nationale de France in 1977 has never previously been evaluated. It was tremendously useful to in our efforts to give the articulation and phrasing as accurately as possible. Equally useful was the manuscript copy which served as the basis for performances at the Paris Opéra in the 19th century, and provided us with information about the history of the work in this theatre. Of course we also took into account all editions published during Gounod’s lifetime.
A new edition must of course mean new music, unknown passages ...
Not at all! What’s new about this edition is its historical truth. There are two categories of modern Faust editions. The first has resulted from tradition, a tradition created by the accretion of layers; so there was one version until the 1930s, which has remained more-or-less unaltered to the present day. The second category comprises editions prepared by editors. A musician or musicologist presents his ideal conception of the work, a little like Viollet-le-Duc when he embellished the two towers of Notre Dame in Paris with spires. He therefore imposes his vision of the work at his own discretion, but in the process goes beyond what the composer had intended, and takes no account of the performance tradition.
Our point of view differs from these two approaches. It is about presenting the historical reality and offering the user a true freedom of choice. He can naturally use the version we provide; but we also offer the possibility of recreating another historical version of the work with the aid of the critical apparatus. He can also free himself entirely from the historical truth and its many aspects if he is sufficiently familiar with the material.
Gounod’s music has often been criticised for its pronounced lightness, lack of dramatic weight and over-use of the same formulae. Can Faust still captivate 21st century audiences?
But of course! Verdi and Wagner also repeated themselves. When people criticised Gounod, he defended himself saying that he did not know how to compose in any other way than Gounod’s. Faust is a love story in song, with a sensuality remaining within the bounds of the Catholic faith; it is a kind of catechism of human and divine love, which, for Gounod, were of the same nature. A young conductor recently confided in me that all of this might perhaps pass for “a little heavy”. His reasoning led him to the conclusion that it was therefore appropriate to speed up the tempi. How unfortunate! Of course excessive pathos is inappropriate, on the contrary, a refined, subtly differentiated and finely-charted musicianship is what is sought after. This is why we have studied the articulation marks, slurs and staccatos with great care, in particular in the autograph score.
Questions by Annette Thein(Translation: Elizabeth Robinson)(from [t]akte 1/2014)