The famous baritone aria from Gounod’s Faust, ‘Avant de quitter ces lieux’, was not in the opera’s original French version. It was written by Gounod to an English text by Henry Chorley especially for the great English baritone Charles Santley (1834-1922). ‘Even the bravest heart’ was loosely translated into French for subsequent performances.
Santely was, by all reports, one of the greatest baritones of the 19th century. He chose to base his career mostly in England, thus diminishing his performances elsewhere. This aria is the only reason that A-list baritones can be induced to sing the rather unimportant role of Valentin. Without the aria the singer who gets the role of Silvio in Pagliacci would be assigned Valentin, with it you get the star singer who does Tonio in the same opera because of the prologue.
I’ll start with one of the most remarkable singers of the late 19th and early 20th century, Mattia Battistini (1856-1928). This baritone’s style was typical of the bel canto era. Everything he sang was suffused with grace and skill. He’s worth a full article, which I’ll get to eventually. He sings the aria in Italian as Dio possente, Dio d’amor. Battistini’s technique was so good that he sang with undiminished effect until a year before his death. Incidentally, when the aria is sung in Italian we hear lyrics originally written in English translated to French and then retranslated into Italian – it’s almost a game of telephone.
Tita Ruffo (1877-1953) was a force of nature. His powerful voice and brilliant high notes made him the most sought after baritone of his era. He gives a rather muscular rendition of the aria. Ruffo Dio possente, Dio d’amor
Giuseppe De Luca (1876-1950) was a pillar of the Metropolitan Opera. He sang more than 900 performances with company between 1915 and 1940. He was noted both for the elegance of his singing and the effectiveness of his acting. He too sings the aria in Italian. De Luca Dio possente, Dio D’amor
Ettore Bastianini (1922-67) was a dark voiced baritone who died prematurely of throat cancer. He concealed the disease from the public and the critics. Not surprisingly it negatively affected his performances over his final two years. it. His middle voice was exceptionally beautiful. He gave 87 performances at the Met between 1953 to 65. I heard him there several times. He had a bright and well formed voice that strained a bit at its top. He too sings the aria in Italian. This recording was taken from an Italian show apparently by a person in the audience. Accordingly the sound is marginal at best. Bastianini Dio possente, Dio D’amor
Next a couple of German baritones not usually associated with this music. Dietrich Fischer Dieskau (1925-2015) could sing just about anything – and did. Despite having a light lyric voice, he was famous for the interpretive insight that he brought to everything he sang. Fischer Dieskau Avant de quitter ces lieux
Hermann Prey (1929-98) was another Teutonic baritone famous for his vocal interpretations. He was also at home in lieder, comic roles, and operetta. Though best known for his German roles he gives a fine performance as Gounod’s doomed baritone. Prey Avant de quitter ces lieux
Simon Keenlyside (b 1959) is a British baritone of great distinction. He sings the aria with the intelligence that characterizes all his work. This recording was made at an outdoor recital. Keenlyside Avant de quitter ces lieux
Lawrence Tibbett (1896-1960) was the first in a series of great American baritones. His reading of the song is focused, has the brilliant sheen characteristic of his voice at it peak, and it’s in French. It can’t be sung any better than this. Tibbett Avant de quitter ces lieux
Leonard Warren (1911-60) was the greatest baritone I ever heard in performance. He sang Valentin at the Met 22 times. This recording is from a telecast and doesn’t show Warren’s voice to best effect. The limited dynamic range of the recording apparatus compresses Warren’s sound and doesn’t give a fair impression of what he really sounded like. None of his 22 Met performances were broadcasts and he made no commercial recording of this aria, so this is all we have to go by. The ease of his top is apparent despite the technical limitations just mentioned. Warren Avant de quitter ces lieux
Robert Merrill (1917-2004) had perhaps the most distinctive baritone voice since the start of the recording age. Just hear a few notes and you can instantly recognize his sound. His voluminous middle voice was fabulous; his only problem was at the highest end of the baritone range where he often struggled. This recording is from at Met broadcast in 1958. Merrill Avant de quitter ces lieux
Sherrill Milnes (b 1935) made his Met debut as Valentin in 1965. The Illinois native gave 653 performances with the company over the next 32 years. The last decade or so marked by intonation problems that degraded his singing. At his best he was firmly ensconced in the Pantheon of great American baritones. I’m not sure of the provenance of this 1965 recording. I suspect it may have been made by the prompter or another Met employee. Milnes Avant de quitter ces lieux
Finally, the late Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (1962-2017). He had both good looks and a liquid voice that was ideal for Verdi. He was also the best Eugene Onegin of his time. He died from an aggressive brain tumor which struck him at the peak of his vocal powers. This aria is from a Met performance in 2005. Hvorostovsky inserts a gratuitous high note near the end that is athletically impressive, but stylistically inapposite. Nevertheless, a fine performance. Hvorostovsky Avant de quitter ces lieux
Avant de quitter ces lieux,
Sol natal de mes aïeux
A toi, seigneur et Roi des cieux
Ma sœur je confie,
Daigne de tout danger
Toujours, toujours la protéger
Cette sœur si cherie!
Délivré d’une triste pensée
J’irai chercher la gloire, la gloire au seins des ennemis,
Le premier, le plus brave au fort de la mêlée,
J’irai combattre pour mon pays.
Et si vers lui, Dieu me rappelle,
Je veillerai sur toi fidèle,
Avant de quitter ces lieux,
Sol natal de mes aïeux,
A toi, seigneur et Roi des cieux,
Ma sœur je confie!
O Roi des cieux, jette les yeux,
Protège Marguerite, Roi des cieux!
Before I leave this town,
My forefathers’ native place,
To you, Lord and King of Heaven,
Do I entrust my sister.
I beg you to defend her
From every peril,
My beloved sister.
Freed from this harrowing thought,
I shall seek glory in the enemy’s ranks,
The first, the bravest, in the thick of the fray,
I shall go and fight for my country.
And if God should call me to his side,
I shall faithfully watch over you,
Before I leave, etc.
O King of Heaven, hear my prayer
And defend Marguerite,
O King of Heaven.