Bertin Fausto Rousset Bru Zane BZ1054

Louise Bertin (1805-1877)
Fausto (1830-31)
Karine Deshayes – Fausto (mezzo)
Karina Gauvin – Margarita (soprano)
Ante Jerkunica – Mefistofele (bass)
Nico Darmanin – Valentino (tenor)
Marie Gautrot – Catarina (mezzo)
Diana Axentii – Una Strega/ Marta (soprano)
Thibault de Damas – Wagner/ Un Banditore (bass-baritone)
Flemish Radio Choir
Les Talens Lyriques/Christophe Rousset
rec. 2023, La Seine Musicale, Paris
Hard Cover Book contains articles, synopsis and full libretto with texts in Italian, French and English.
Bru Zane BZ1054 [2 CDs: 125]

Fausto is the second opera by Louise Bertin to appear on CD; the first was her final work for the stage, La Esmeralda (1836), which appeared several years ago on the Accord label. La Esmeralda was Bertin’s attempt to turn Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris into a viable work of music theatre. In Fausto, she tackles Goethe’s Faust; she obviously had no fear of taking on challenging subject matter. If it seems strange that a French composer would write an Italian opera for Paris, one must remember that Paris at that period had a second thriving opera house called the ThéâtreItalien, in which only Italian operas were performed. Bertin was one of two French composers who were permitted to write an opera for that theater (Fromental Halévy was the other, with his opera Clari). In the case of Fausto, Bertin had originally written the work in French to her own libretto, but then translated it into Italian herself, after the performances were commissioned by the theater. Originally, the role of Fausto was composed as a trouser role for the famous Italian contralto Rosamunda Pisoroni (she created the role of Malcolm in Rossini’s La Donna del Lago). The premiere was scheduled for 1830; unfortunately it had to be delayed because of the July Revolution, which ended the reign of the last Bourbon King, Charles X, and brought about the Second Empire, under Louis Napoleon. When the opera was finally staged in 1831, Pisaroni was no longer available, and the role of Fausto was adapted to be played by a tenor for Domenico Donzelli (he was the first Pollione in Bellini’s Norma). Fausto played in Paris for approximately a month, after which it disappeared from view. The score was thought to be lost, but a few years ago the autograph score was discovered in the Bibliothèque nationale, and was published online during the pandemic. Bertin, despite a unique compositional voice, was fated to struggle to get her operas noticed. La Esmeralda received even fewer performances than Fausto, after which Bertin swore-off composing for the stage.

Bertin’s music for Fausto is both forward and backward looking. She has a musical language which is strangely intense, almost Berlioz-like. This is not surprising, as they both were pupils of Anton Reicha. Bertin does not indulge in the easy coloratura and flowing style of the Bel Canto musical language. Her music often seems to pay tribute to Weber; in fact, Fausto contains repeated quotes and elaborations on the horn fanfares that Weber wrote for the Wolf’s Glen scene in Der Freischütz. This, combined with vocal lines that are direct and malleable, make Fausto’s music sound persistently weighty. The orchestration which heavily favours woodwinds and brass only adds to this impression. However, the recitatives sound distinctly old-fashioned when paired next to such advanced sounding music, especially on this recording where they are accompanied by the lumpy sound of a pianoforte.

Christophe Rousset has chosen to go back to the original version for the mezzo. The role is something quite unique in operatic history. It is the only example I can think of where a trouser role is used for an elderly man, as Fausto remains older in this opera for a much longer period than in any other version of the story that I have encountered (for nearly 40 minutes). Fausto is sung by celebrated French mezzo Karine Deshayes. She has the lion’s share of the music, and sings it with supple tone and virtuosity where required. She has a lovely cavatina in the last act; one of the few full-length arias in the score, and delivers it very touchingly. The role often requires her to ascend into the soprano range, which she handles quite neatly. There are some moments of edginess in her sound when she is singing above the staff, but this is probably as much due to the close position of the microphone as anything else.

Soprano Karina Gauvin retains her soft, rounded timbre as Margarita. The vocal line keeps Gauvin confined to the mezzo territory, which shows off the warmth of her lower voice. She sings the role with warmth and tenderness, her voice contrasting beautifully with that of Ms Deshayes. They should consider singing Rossini’s Semiramide together some day.

Mefistofele is presented by Bertin as an almost jovial, comedic character, but one with the threatening undertones of something darker lurking underneath. Ante Jerkunica reveals a magisterial stygian- coloured bass that is a thorough pleasure to encounter here. He is superb in the Act One duet, where he tempts Fausto with the delights of rejuvenation, and later on with his comic wooing of the neighbor Catarina.

Tenor Nico Darmanin is an exciting newcomer to the opera world; his is one of the most promising tenor sounds that I have encountered in recent years. His delivery of Valentino’s aria is very polished, and promises much for the future. Hopefully he sticks to a careful path and continues to grow as an artist.

Interestingly, Bertin has Fausto encounter the supernatural world before his seduction of Margarita, as opposed to the Walpurgis Night scenes in Gounod’s Faust and Boito’s Mephistofele. In this opera, Mephisto brings Faust to a witch, who is the one to cast the spell of his transformation to become a young man. Bertin composed a very inventive trio for them prior to the transformation. Soprano Dina Axentii gives an electrifying performance of the Witch, which makes one wish the role was longer. There are no weak links among the other singers of the smaller roles among this cast.

The sound on this recording I find troubling. The voices and orchestra have been recorded much too closely, with the voices sounding as if they are constantly glued to one’s ear. There is no sense of space or atmosphere at all. A little more sense of space would have contributed greatly to the overall mood of the piece. Christophe Rousset whips his period orchestra into a frenzy much of the time. This can be a liability at times because Bertin’s music is so often intensely driven that listening to the opera becomes a little tiring, even when hearing it at home. The period orchestra, Les Talens Lyriques, plays the music well enough, but the strings in particular sound extremely undernourished. I am not completely convinced by the argument that 19th Century music should be interpreted by 18th Century instruments. It is a trend that outstayed its welcome in my view. I have the impression that, had Bru Zane used modern instruments on this recording , and if more attention had been paid to stage perspectives in the engineering department, it would mitigate the perceived imbalance in Bertin’s brass-heavy orchestration. This opera’s unusual orchestration, combined with the high-pressured flow of Bertin’s music, turns Fausto into an opera that is a novelty, but one that is of interest mostly to musicologists. Bru Zane should once again be thanked for exhuming a work that was literally buried for a very long time. Their usual gold standards of CD presentation have been maintained here. I have my doubts that Fausto will have much of a performance life in the future. Ultimately, her final opera, La Esmeralda, is a better testament to Louise Bertin’s skills as a composer. The Accord CDs are now very difficult to find: the 2008 performance was recorded live in Montpellier under conductor Lawrence Foster, and the cast is a reasonably accomplished one. The entire opera can be accessed via YouTube. Perhaps Bru Zane, or some other enterprising label, can be persuaded to acquire the rights to release La Esmeralda for a new generation to experience.

Mike Parr

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