Art Times

Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” opens at a New York opera house in which Gounod’s “Faust” is being performed—in Italian. Wharton explains that the language change was because “an unalterable and unquestionable law of the musical world required that the German text of French opera sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.”

Actually, most European opera houses once performed all operas in the language of that country. It was not until the airplane made it possible for artists to hop from city to city, having learned their roles in the language the composer intended. All this to report on a 1920 recording of “Faust “ in Italian that has been rescued from oblivion and put into a 2-CD set on the Divine Art label as part of their Historic Sound series.

Of course, it is abridged (the Walpurgis Night sequence is entirely omitted) and the sound is very good acoustic (pre-electric). Granted that, its being sung in Italian gives it a certain historic quality. The cast is quite good, especially the Mephistopheles of Fernando Autori, who does not ham things up the way some Slavic bassos have done in more recent times.

The others in the cast are Giuliano Romagnoli (Faust), Gemma Bosini (Margherita), and Adolfo Pacini (Valentino). Carlo Sabajno conducts the Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan in this 143-minute version that can stand on its own vocally against some of the more recent French-language versions (featuring several Italian singers in much need of French pronunciation lessons).

Much of the text sticks closely to the French original, and linguists will be interested in the departures that change some of the meaning of crucial passages. I was delighted to find the entire Italian text (but no English translation) included in the very informative booklet. Those who can bring up the PDF file on the second disc can follow the French-English-Italian text on their screens or print it out for easier reference.

“Faust” in Italian? Why not?

—Frank Behrens