Re-hearing Gounod’s Faust: A New Performing Edition - Detroit Opera

Re-hearing Gounod’s Faust: A New Performing Edition

In 2018, French musicologist Paul Prévost, in collaboration with music publisher Bärenreiter-Verlag, produced a new edition of Gounod’s Faust. This performing edition restores the spoken dialogue of the 1859 original that premiered at the Théâtre Lyrique on March 29, 1859, as well as previously unpublished numbers and melodramas. As Prévost further describes:

Although several numbers differ from the well-known pieces only in details of orchestration (the duet for Faust and Méphistophélès Me voici!”; the duel trio “Que voulez-vous messieurs?”; the death of Valentin “Par ici, mes amis!”), others transform the informed music lover’s customary perception of Gounod’s Faust. Among these are the trio for Faust, Wagner, and Siebel, “À l’étude, ô mon maître”; the Valentin-Marguerite duet “Adieu, mon bon frère!”; Méphistophélès’s air “Maître Scarabée”; Siebel’s romance “Versez vos chagrins dans mon âme!”; Valentin’s air with chorus “Chaque jour, nouvelle affaire”; and the chorus of witches “Un, deux et trois”. To this we add seven melodramas whose missing or incomplete orchestration has been written for this edition.

In 2018, Les Talens Lyriques was the first to perform and record this new edition of Gounod’s Faust, to great acclaim. The following year, Opera Omaha gave this version its world premiere staging in a production directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, which now comes to Detroit. Here, Detroit Opera’s Head of Music Nathalie Doucet examines this new/old version of one of the most popular and beloved of operas.

Faust is one of the most popular 19th-century French operas, including during its own time. I think it’s popular because it exhibits many qualities that place it between the worlds of grand opéra and opéra comique. It has the scope, serious subject matter, and moral tone of grand opéra; on the side of opéra comique, it has spoken dialogue instead of sung recitative, and it has many moments of lightness, humor, and irony, especially in the characterizations of Marthe and Méphistophélès.

The critical edition put together by Paul Prévost is not based on the original version of the work, but rather the 1869 revision that’s based on the third version of the work. (Interestingly, it seems Gounod himself wanted all the various versions to be available for performance separately.) This edition gives us a middle ground that takes into account the long-established performance tradition of the opera with all the melodies we know and love, while also offering the possibility of recreating another version of the opera. It contains music we don’t often hear when Faust is performed in the form to which we’ve currently become accustomed.

There are two major editorial choices that Prévost made that result in differences to prevailing performance practices. One of them is the inclusion of a scene between Marguerite and Siébel, which doesn’t typically appear in productions of Faust today. In this version, they have a moment of reconciliation and there’s a lovely aria for Siébel, “Versez vos chagrins dans mon âme!”, which gives her character a lot more definition and growth.

Prévost’s other decision, which is very interesting to me, was to exclude Valentin’s aria “Avant de quitter ces lieux.” He felt that the substitution of an aria later in the work was more historically authentic. (Indeed, during his lifetime, Gounod had forbidden this aria from being performed at the Opéra de Paris despite its popularity and had prevented its publication in the French vocal score). This aria was originally written with an English text—called “Even bravest heart may swell”—at the express wish of the baritone Charles Santley, who played Valentin at Covent Garden in 1864 where the opera was performed in an English translation. Gounod arranged this aria by extracting a musical theme from the Prelude and it became quite popular. So, while you’ll hear this theme in the Prelude, you won’t hear the aria in these Detroit Opera performances. Instead, we’ll see Valentin sing a beautiful duet with his sister Marguerite, “Adieu, mon bon frère!,” before going off to war. Later on, when he returns, he has this wonderful bombastic, energetic aria with chorus, “Chaque jour, nouvelle affaire.” Thus, we get a more complete view of the character of Valentin. So, in this critical edition of Faust, we get a lot more character definition, and see a lot more of the development and the journey that each character undergoes during the span of the opera.

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