[Met Performance] CID:164000
New production
Faust {499} Metropolitan Opera House: 11/16/1953.

(Opening Night {69}
Rudolf Bing, General Manager
Debuts: Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Peter Brook

Metropolitan Opera House
November 16, 1953
Opening Night {69}
New production

Rudolf Bing, General Manager

FAUST {499}

Faust...................Jussi Björling
Marguerite..............Victoria de los Angeles
Méphistophélès..........Nicola Rossi-Lemeni [Debut]
Valentin................Robert Merrill
Siebel..................Mildred Miller
Marthe..................Thelma Votipka
Wagner..................Lawrence Davidson

Conductor...............Pierre Monteux

Director................Peter Brook [Debut]
Designer................Rolf Gérard
Choreographer...........Zachary Solov

Faust received twenty performances this season.

Review of Olin Downes in The New York Times
Mr. Björling headed the list of fine voices with his wonted mastery of the vocal art. One could not claim for this gifted exponent of song a romantic appearance or histrionic power. But when he communicates the amorous sentiment and soaring line of Gounod's music, or looses the high C that most other tenors may vainly envy him, the audience may look elsewhere if it chooses; or stare, or glare, at some uncommon feature of Mr. Gerard's scenic fantasy. The singer will cast his spell.

And there was Miss de Los Angeles" beautifully sung and uncommonly interpreted Marguerite. She sang it not as an exhibitionistic diva, but as a musician and interpreter, with warmth and sensuous feeling, and prevailing tonal loveliness.

It is true that she was not capable of the sheer virtuosity that the "Jewel Song" requires for its full effect. For its virtuoso stuff, not incongruous with the dramatic situation of Marguerite delighted and aflutter at the sight of the jewels; nevertheless a showpiece properly to be tossed off with secure and joyous bravura. Miss de Los Angeles gave the song intimacy and sentiment, but little coquetry or scintillation. This necessitated a little slower tempo than is customary in the passage, and Mr. Monteux gave her wonderful understanding and support from the orchestra. In such passages as the song of Thule's king, and the love duet she was especially artistic.

The principal new figure of the cast was Mr. Rossi-Lemeni as Mephistopheles, and a dashing devil he, with a personality and Hoffmanesque make-up. He sang and he acted too, on broad lines of melodrama. His voice is ample in volume, if not of the finest quality or standard of production. The focus of the tone varies, and his style is not polished. But he hit the high spots in this song of the golden calf. In the Serenade under Marguerite's window, later on, he was not so fortunate.

To this it must be added that too often Mr. Rossi-Lemeni, handsome in appearance, a personable and fashionably attired Mephistopheles, was a "ham" actor. He strutted, scowled, thrust forward clutching fingers, projected himself into the foreground at every possible moment.

Mr. Merrill, the Valentine, resonant in tone and effective in delivery, reached his height in the scene of Valentine's death. There was also the beautiful singing of Siebel's ditty by Mildred Miller, the competency of Lawrence Davidson's Wagner, and of Miss Votipka's Marthe. In the Kermesse scene, particularly, the chorus sang with exemplary resonance and gusto.

The musical interpretation of the opera, then, was of a high level-in some respects exceptional. The new staging has some good ideas, some not so good, and a number that materially weaken the dramatic effect.

Review of Thomas R. Dash in Women's Wear Daily

Not all the brilliance at the Metropolitan Opera opening last night was in the flashing jewels of the fashionables who make this is occasion to sparkle. To a plebian impervious to bejeweled tiaras, there was even greater brilliance on the stage and in the pit.

Here, competing with the bedlam of the lorgnette set, the Metropolitan presented a new production of Gounod's immortal "Faust." With the youthful and imaginative British stage director Peter Brook restaging the work in the romantic 19th Century era instead of the mustier 16th Century, with Rolf Gerard furnishing stage décor to fit the new period setting, with the singers rendering the famed arias in matchless style, and with Pierre Monteux casting a magic spell with his baton, it was indeed an occasion to delight the musical devotees.

From the viewpoint of showmanship and stagecraft this is a "Faust" of many moods and many facets. It is gay and merry in the scenes of revelry, romantic in the interludes of lovemaking, bitterly mocking and sardonic when Mephisto plots his diabolical schemes, martial when the soldiers return from the wars, sacred when the invocation of the Heavenly Power makes the Prince of Darkness quail and cringe, At all times it is capital lyric theatre - vital, dynamic, pulsing with the varied emotions enkindled. Rudolf Bing's faith in Peter Brook should yield artistic dividends.

Gerard's settings make the production theatrically alive. The cluttered studio of the aged philosopher Faust, the Kermesse scene with its gay carnival trappings, the street setting for "The Soldier's Chorus" with tiers of steps meeting at odd angles, the hazy Inferno scene with Mephisto serving as Faust's cicerone, the solemn church scene and even the prison scene when the doleful Marguerite lies anguished, deserted and mad on her pallet of straw are physical attributes that give the new production the proper mood and propel it to the opera's tragic culmination.

Although Pierre Monteux is virtually a boy prodigy - he is only 76 compared with Toscanini's 87 - the conductor gets all the luster out of Gounod's bejeweled score. Never in this auditor's hearing, did the orchestral music have more limpid grandeur, more lucid phrasing. Here is true fidelity at its best.

The singers, too, are magnificent. The Met introduced a new bass, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, who portrays Mephisto. He is not a booming basso profundo. Classify him, if you like, as a lyrical basso. He has an effortless style of delivery. He never strains or forces his tones; his reserve and musicianship are superb. He shines particularly in the rollicking "Calf of Gold" song and again in his snarling, sneering song when the demon mocks Marguerite, accompanying himself on the guitar. Mr. Rossi-Lemeni is an accomplished actor who knows his way about a stage. He is dominant, devilish, Iagoish, sardonic - all at the right time. This is not a cloven-hoof devil. Mephisto is a sartorial gallant, dressed impeccably in a red lined opera cape, formal clothes, high hat and swirling a stick.

Jussi Björling has a tenor voice that approaches the glory of the violin in its purest tones. His acting, however, is somewhat stiff and confined to conventional gestures. Lyrically, his Faust is brilliant; histrionically, he lacks the scope to make Faust and impressive character.

Vocally, Victoria de los Angeles is a radiant Marguerite. Sitting at the spinning wheel she renders the famous "Ballad of the King of Thule" with affecting tonal beauty, and her aria of the "Jewel Song" is enchanting.

Robert Merrill pours out the majestic beauty of his resonant baritone as Valentin and Mildred Miller, impersonating the youthful swain Siebel, sings with bell-like clarity.

The original librettists devised the idea of having a mezzo-soprano sing the boyish roles. It may have been the convention of their day, but in our times of spotlighting effeminism and tranvestism, this seems like a double conceit. We have another gripe against the librettists, from the viewpoint of pure justice. It was Faust who made the compact with the Devil. Yet it is the guileless and innocent Marguerite who pays the price for his spiritual folly. True, we see Faust flitting though Dante's inferno in one scene - but, for the most part, the old bookworm and philosopher turned roué has had youth, love and beauty and merely loses such an intangible as his soul. Marguerite, on the other hand, loses her lover, her child, her mind and life itself. The one solace is that she gains purification in the beatific death scene.

The intoning by the choir in the sacred interludes and the martial singing by the soldier' chorus supervised by Kurt Adler, represent choral singing at its best. The choreography by Zachery Solov in the romping carnival scene and the grotesque Hades scene add more splendor to a rich and resplendent production. Mr. Bing has been instrumental in bringing new dramatic vitality to yet another great work in the Met's repertory.

Photograph of Jussi Björling and Victoria de los Angeles in Faust by Sedge LeBlang.
Photograph of the cast of the 1953-54 production of Faust: Jussi Björling, Victoria de los Angeles, Rudolf Bing, Pierre Monteux, Robert Merrill, and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni

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