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Louise Bertin: Fausto

Louise Bertin: Fausto

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It was around 1825 that Louise Bertin, pupil of Reicha and friend of Berlioz, tackled the subject of Faust with all the energy and confidence of a young woman of twenty. She entirely exceeded the public’s expectations and won over the critics with her daring. Colourful orchestration, charming cantabiles, vigorous choruses – everything seemed to promise the work would enter the repertory. But the closure of the Théâtre-Italien after just three performances in 1831 decided otherwise, and the score languished in the vaults of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France for 190 years. The leading role, conceived for the mezzo-soprano Rosmunda Pisaroni, was finally created by the tenor Domenico Donzelli. In this complete recording with period instruments, Christophe Rousset presents the work in its original form, which has never been heard before, even in the composer's lifetime. Once again, Les Talens Lyriques and the Palazzetto Bru Zane join forces in an adventurous French operatic rediscovery.


Limelight Magazine Recording of the Month, May 2024

“Mademoiselle Louise Bertin, the daughter of the proprietor of the Journal des Débats, and sister of its chief editor, has been remarkably successful, both in literature and music. She is one of the ablest women of our time. Her musical talent, to my mind, is rather rational than emotional; but it is a real talent notwithstanding.” That’s Berlioz in his Mémoires, responding to criticisms of his boss’ daughter’s fourth and final opera La Esmeralda (based on Notre Dame de Paris; Bertin was the only composer with whom Victor Hugo ever collaborated).

As Berlioz makes clear, she had to struggle with not just the usual prejudice against a female composer but with those who wanted to knock her powerful family connections. The result: in 1836 she abandoned opera for good. It’s often been assumed that Berlioz was being paid to be kind, but with Fausto, the latest release from Palazetto Bru Zane, we have ample proof that Bertin was a force to be reckoned with.

She was just 20, when in 1825 she began working up Goethe’s masterwork into an Italian opera semiseria. Fausto, to her own libretto, was meant to premiere in 1830, but unforeseen complications meant it didn’t reach the stage until 1831. Bad notices and the closure of the Théâtre-Italien condemned it to just three performances. Intriguingly, the title role was conceived for the mezzo-soprano Rosmunda Pisaroni but ended up being sung by the tenor Domenico Donzelli. In this recording, with period instruments, Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques present the work in its original form, and it’s an absolute cracker. Despite its Italian title, Fausto is more Weber than Rossini, although there are clear bel canto elements here and there. The orchestrations are highly original for its day – snipers in 1836 accused Berlioz of having written parts of La Esmerelda – and the dramatic effects are bold, sometimes startlingly so. Listen to the percussive wallop which kicks off the lengthy overture. Or the striking Gothic excesses as Fausto seals the pact with Mefistofele. There’s no shortage of good tunes either, with Margarita in particular getting some real charmers.

Dramaturgically, there are one or two missteps – Margarita asking the elderly Fausto to heal Catarina delays the devil’s arrival, and the final trio peters out (one suspects that Bertin might have fixed that if she’d ever had the chance). Otherwise, a good stage director could do something with the opera, not to mention singers with three meaty parts on offer.

The cast here is outstanding. French mezzo-soprano Karine Deshayes hurls herself fearlessly at Fausto’s challenging lines (the role is often high). The voice is bright and flexible, and she conveys the doctor’s mixture of ardent determination, despair and desperation. Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin may not sound the innocent victim, but her Margarita is beautifully sung and full of fire. The voice is luscious with first-rate diction. Croatian bass Ante Jerkunica is a sonorous Mefistofele with plenty of personality (though the role could use an aria or two). Nico Darmanin displays a bright, thrilling tenor as Margarita’s brother Valentino (his military aria, drums and horns popping, is a bel canto bombshell), and Marie Gautrot is ripe and characterful as the elderly Catarina. Best of all is Rousset who delivers a high-octane account of this remarkably original score. Not only does he bring it to life with judicious pacing and a winning flexibility, he draws out the unique textures of Bertin’s orchestrations with a sensitive ear for colour.

Les Talens Lyriques play like demons. Period strings are full of bite, while the individual timbres of wind, brass and percussion combine to create delicate and dramatic textures. Beautiful recording in vivid, in your face sound, and smartly documented, Fausto is more than just an intriguing rediscovery. It makes you long to hear La Esmerelda, by all accounts a more mature work and with a Victor Hugo libretto no less.

-- Limelight (Clive Paget)

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  • Release Specifications

    • Number of Discs: 2
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    • Label: BRU ZANE
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