Opera Album Review: A Devilishly Good First Recording for Louise Bertin’s “Fausto”

By Ralph P. Locke

Much praised by Berlioz and others, this Italian opera (composed for the great mezzo María Malibran) brings a notable female composer out of the shadows.

Fausto, Louise Bertin

Karine Deshayes (Fausto), Karina Gauvin (Margarita), Diana Axtentii (Witch, Marta), Marie Gautrot (Catarina), Nico Darmanin (Valentino), Thibault de Damas (Wagner, Town Crier), Ante Jerkunica (Mefistofele).

Flemish Radio Choir, Les Talens Lyriques, cond. Christophe Rousset.

BruZane 1054 [2 discs] 126 minutes.

Click to purchase or to try any track.

The hunt for worthy compositions by forgotten composers of the Romantic era has borne some spectacular fruit. Numerous notable female composers have been rediscovered. During their lifetime, some of them succeeded in having their works performed and published. Others, because of societal pressures and prejudices, ended up writing for private performance or for the desk drawer.

Recently, I was delighted to draw attention to Compositrices, an 8-CD box of wonderful performances of fascinating and sometimes quite stirring pieces by 21 French women composers, in performances by some of today’s best performers from France and elsewhere (including pianists Nathalia Milstein and Roberto Prosseda). One composer who was omitted — and surely not for reasons of quality — was Louise Bertin (1805-77), three of whose four operas were performed at major theaters in Paris. She also published a piano trio and composed numerous piano pieces (including six highly praised ballades) as well as, for private performance, numerous chamber symphonies and chamber cantatas.

Bertin came with plentiful advantages, being the daughter and sister, respectively, of Louis and Armand Bertin, the two successive owners-editors of the major, politically moderate newspaper Le Journal des débats (for which Berlioz wrote actively during most of his career). She had excellent musical training from Fétis and Reicha. (Reicha, whose works — except for some dry piano pieces — have been much praised in recent CD reviews, also taught Berlioz and Liszt.)

But Bertin’s life was also filled with challenges. She suffered from a childhood disease that left her unable to walk without crutches thereafter. And her works were held up to extraordinary scrutiny and suspicion because of her family’s wealth and connections. Particularly vicious was the rumor that an aria for Quasimodo in her grand opera La Esmeralda (1836) was composed by Berlioz, who had indeed advised Bertin from time to time on the work and had assisted at rehearsals, but had not composed anything in it, other than to have suggested a change in the ending of that one aria — the kind of helpful suggestion that one composer regularly makes to another without causing a public uproar.

La Esmeralda was last of her four operas, and it can be heard in an excellent 2008 recording on Accord 4802341, conducted by Lawrence Foster. The third opera, Fausto (composed to an Italian libretto), has now been recorded, and splendidly. It’s her 1831 version of Goethe’s Faust drama (that is, “part 1”, not the later, more philosophical and less theatrically realizable “part 2”).

Composer Louise Bertin. Photo: Wiki Commong

The basic plot of Fausto will be familiar to those who know the Goethe play, Gounod’s opera, Berlioz’s uncategorizable concert work (légende dramatique) entitled La damnation de Faust, or Arrigo Boito’s opera Mefistofele: notable moments include, successively, Fausto being brought out of his depression by a chorus in praise of the risen Christ, Margarita at first rejecting Fausto’s advances in the public square, a scene (with English horn) in which Margarita wonders whether this happiness can really be hers, a scene for two couples in the garden (Faust with Margarita and Mefistofele with an older woman, here named Catarina rather than, as in the Gounod, Marthe), a love duet for Faust and Margarita, a scene of regret and despondency for Margarita near a statue of the Virgin (after the no-longer-innocent lass has inadvertently caused the death of her mother and child) while women of the town make disapproving comments, and a prison scene in which Margarita is saved (sing the angels) and Fausto is dragged down to Hell.

Along the way we find scenes and confrontations that are less usually encountered in other composers’ musical settings of the Faust tale, such as the episode (in Act 1) in the Witches’ Kitchen, here featuring a single witch (Strega) and a chorus of demons. It is in this scene (not earlier, as in other Faust works) that Faust’s youth is magically restored, allowing him to commence his pursuit and seduction of Margarita.

Many foreign composers in the nineteenth century tried to compose Italian operas, and some achieved worthy results (e.g., Meyerbeer, Balfe, Nicolai, and Gomez) that are finally winning attention again nowadays. To them should now be added Bertin, whose Fausto draws much strength from the musicodramatic traditions of Rossinian opera, not least in a canny use of the multi-part structure of musical numbers: that is, many of them include a lyrical cantabile section and a more energetic cabaletta-like closing one. (Bertin, who would also publish poetry in her lifetime, constructed the libretto herself, though she apparently got someone else to versify it into Italian.) Most notable is that the work cuts way back on the quantity of coloratura singing and, instead, offers all kinds of imaginative touches in harmony, phrase structure, and orchestration.

Having vocal lines that are much less florid than, say, those in Rossini’s Semiramide means that when a character does offer a short scalar burst on a single syllable, it feels like the natural outpouring of her or his emotion (or fake emotion, in the case of Mefistofele). And the assured control of harmony is not always attention-getting: I admire the effortless modulations (rather like those of Auber, a prolific and smoothly professional master of opéra-comique) that help us transfer our attention from the Mefistofele-Catarina couple to the Faust-Margarita one and back again, as all four saunter around Catarina’s garden in Act 2. Bertin is particularly good at coming up with orchestral textures and melodic-rhythmic figures that set a scene or that underlie the lively interchanges between various characters. There are some very involving duet and trio movements. Secco recitatives, here performed with fortepiano accompaniment, are short and effective.

Mezzo Soprano Karine Deshayes. Photo: Aymeric Giraudel

It helps enormously that the performance here is so fully accomplished, as one has come to expect from the Bru Zane label. This is the 38th opera they have released, always in a small hardcover book filled with informative essays in French and good English and offering the libretto in French and English — and in this case, of course, Italian also. But the Italian text should have been placed in the central column instead of the leftmost one; my eye had to keep jumping over the French to compare the Italian to the English.

One basic oddity: the role of Fausto was originally conceived for the great María Malibran, a mezzo-soprano. This was presumably done in obeisance to the tradition of the “musico”: the female mezzo to whom early nineteenth-century composers often assigned a role for a young hero, such as Tancredi in Rossini’s opera of that name, or Arsace in Semiramide. The “musico” was, scholars tell us, a replacement for the castrato hero of the Baroque and early Classic eras, since she was able to sing in approximately the same range as a castrato. And she could often do so with remarkable effect, as opera lovers got to experience more than a century later when Marilyn Horne took many of these roles and made them her own.

But Bertin’s Fausto was portrayed by a tenor in 1831 — and not just any tenor but the renowned Domenico Donzelli, a robust-toned singer who, months after Fausto, would be Pollione in the first production of Bellini’s Norma. The Bru Zane team seem to have wanted to go back to Bertin’s original conception of the role, but I wish they had used a tenor instead.

Fortunately, mezzo Karine Deshayes, though her voice is not very full at the bottom, is a consummate technician who also puts the text across meaningfully. (I have previously admired her in music by Salieri, Rossini, Félicien David, and Gounod.)

The Margarita is the utterly magnificent, rich-voiced Karina Gauvin (from Canada), whom I and other critics have praised in Lully, Desmarest, Porpora, Mozart, Spontini, Debussy, and eighteenth-century Russian composers. Tenor Nico Darmanin, who could have handled the title role splendidly, is a glowing presence as Margarita’s brother Valentino, who returns from war in Act 3 to find that his sister has been seduced and abandoned by Fausto.

Croatian bass-baritone Ante Jerkunica (who sang Sparafucile in Rigoletto at the Met in 2022) is a wily and forceful Mefistofele, fully up to the comical quick patter in his first encounter with Catarina (sounding a bit like Figaro in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia or, a year after Fausto, Dr. Dulcamara in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore). Yet he also wields considerable resonance for moments when he must announce doom to the two lovers.

Conductor Christophe Rousset. Photo: Eric Larrayadieu

The period-instrument orchestra plays magnificently, and Christophe Rousset (better known for his Baroque recordings) is attuned at every moment to shifts in the drama. He allows the brass to snarl a bit and the cymbals to sizzle. This is, orchestrally, one of the most colorful recordings I’ve heard recently, and always to some dramatic purpose.

I do wish there had been the libretto-indicated knocking on the door in two scenes, to help listeners understand what is going on even if they are not following the printed text at that moment. In the second case, the keyboard player strikes three quick chords, which is too subtle for the purpose and, to my taste, distracting and somehow distancing.

I also wish that the essays had given us further information and speculation. Conceivably, Bertin knew Berlioz’s Eight Scenes from “Faust”, published two years before the premiere of the Bertin (but quickly withdrawn by Berlioz). It, too, had a doleful number for Marguerite with English horn! (Two decades later, Berlioz would incorporate that lament, almost unchanged, in La Damnation.) But Bertin’s work was percolating for several years, so it may be that the two composers came up with a similar idea independently of each other.

Late bulletin: Fausto just had its first modern staged production at the famed Aalto Theatre in Essen (Germany), with nine performances between February and May 2024. I’m happy to say that a tenor was used in the title role, and you can get a good sense of the lively staging, and Bertin’s spirited music, from the two-minute trailer.

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback; the second, also as an e-book. Ralph Locke also contributes to American Record Guide and to the online arts-magazines New York ArtsOpera Today, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His articles have appeared in major scholarly journals, in Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary), and in the program books of major opera houses, e.g., Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich). He is part of the editorial team of Music & Musical Performance: An International Journal, an open-access source that includes contributions by performers (soprano Elly Ameling) as well as noted scholars (Robert M. Marshall, Peter Bloom) and is read around the world. The present review first appeared in American Record Guide and appears here with kind permission.


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