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The character of Faust is the protagonist of a classic German legend in which he makes a pact with the Devil. The tale became the basis of a great number of works including musical works by Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt, etchings by Rembrandt, numerous ballets, and most importantly, literary works by Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Mann, and the famous novel by Goethe, the first part of which would become the model for Gounod’s opera.
Originally composed with spoken dialogue, the first performances of Gounod’s Faust in 1859 at the Theatre-Lyrique in Paris were not well received. It was up to the publisher Antoine Choudens and Gounod to revise the work into a grand opera with great spectacle. Its subsequent performance in 1862 was a hit, ensuring its lasting place in the operatic repertoire ever since.
Throughout the 20th century, Faust remained the most popular opera at the Metropolitan Opera, having received more performances at the Met than any other work in the repertoire.
For more information about Faust, download An Irreverent Guide for Enjoying: Gounod’s Faust.
ACT I. Scene Two. Soldiers and townspeople gather for a fair. A young officer, Valentin, holding a medallion from his sister Marguerite, asks his friend, the young boy Siébel, to protect his sister while he is off at war. Wagner, a student, starts the revels with a lively song but is interrupted by Méphistophélès, who delivers an impudent hymn in praise of greed and gold. Méphistophélès then amazes the crowd by causing new wine to flow from an old keg. When he makes a brazen toast to Marguerite, Valentin draws his sword, but it shatters; the other soldiers, recognizing Satan, hold their swords like crosses before Méphistophélès, who cowers before them. As the crowd begins a waltz, Faust speaks to Marguerite. She refuses to let him escort her home; Méphistophélès returns to lead the merrymakers in their dance.
ACT II. Siébel briefly visits Marguerite's garden to leave her a bouquet of flowers. The romantic youth is followed by Faust and Méphistophélès, who goes in search of a gift to outshine Siébel's. Left alone, Faust hails Marguerite's simple home. Méphistophélès returns with a box of jewels which he places near Siébel's flowers. When Marguerite arrives, she sits by her spinning wheel to sing a ballad; distractedly interrupting the verses with reflections on the stranger she has met. Discovering the flowers and box, the girl exclaims in delight as she adorns herself with jewels. Méphistophélès detours a nosy middle-aged neighbor, Marthe, by flirting with her, so that Faust may complete his seduction. As Méphistophélès invokes a night full of stars, Marguerite confesses her love, but nevertheless begs Faust to leave. The Devil mocks Faust's failure, and points to Marguerite, who has reappeared at her window. As she ecstatically expresses her love for Faust, they meet and embrace. She yields to his embraces, as Méphistophélès' taunting laughter is heard in the garden.
ACT III. Scene One. In the town square, Valentin and his comrades return from war, singing the glory of those slain in battle. He questions Siébel about Marguerite but receives only evasive replies. Puzzled, he enters his house. Faust, remorseful at having abandoned the now pregnant Marguerite, arrives with Méphistophélès who serenades the girl with a lewd ballad. Valentin defends his sister's honor, and fights a duel with Faust. At a crucial moment, Méphistophélès intervenes and Faust kills Valentin. As the Devil drags Faust away, Marguerite kneels by her fatally wounded brother, who curses her with his last breath.
ACT III. Scene Two. Marguerite seeks refuge in church, only to be pursued by Méphistophélès, who curses her and torments her with threats of damnation.
ACT III. Scene Three. The Witches’ Sabaath. Méphistophélès conjures the spirits of Cleopatra and Thais, offering them to Faust in an orgy of feasting and pleasure. They hand Faust a potion to make him forget Marguerite, but to no avail. An image of Marguerite, tortured and in prison, comes to Faust who rushes to her side.
ACT III. Scene Four. In prison for murdering her newborn child, Marguerite lies asleep. Faust and Méphistophélès enter to convince her to escape with them. As Méphistophélès keeps watch, Faust wakens Marguerite. At first she is overjoyed to see her lover, but instead of fleeing with him her dispairing mind wanders to recall their first days of happiness. When Méphistophélès emerges from the shadows urging them to leave, Marguerite recognizes him as being Satan and calls on the angels of Heaven to save her. When the drums announce her impending walk to the gallows, Méphistophélès pronounces her condemned, but a choir of angels proclaims her contrition has saved her.
Victoria de Los Angeles, Nicolai Gedda, Boris Christoff, Andre Cluytens, conductor – Orchestres du Theatre de l’Opera. EMI records
Why this one and not say, Alfredo Kraus’ wonderful recording or Placido Domingo’s equally exquisite performance? Two reasons – Boris Christoff and Andre Cluytens. The great Bulgarian basso is such an imposing Mephistofeles, every time he opens his mouth one is mesmorized by the sheer power of the voice, and his truly sardonic portrayal – even his laugh is sinister. Plus Mo. Cluytens’ sensitive, exquisitely French interpretation (Cluytens was Belgian) is as perfect as one could ask for. For me, it is equally fun to hear a French orchestra (reedy oboes, bassoons that sound a little like saxophones, French horns that almost sound like fat bassoons) play this music. More reasons – Nicolai Gedda is a truly wonderful Faust, and Victoria de Los Angeles a sweet and convincing Margarite (his French is excellent, hers not so).
Opera is like fine wine. The more you know about it, the more you appreciate and desire it.
Two music excerpts everyone should learn before coming to hear Faust (yes, my friends, one goes to the cinema to ‘see’ a movie, but one comes to the theater to ‘hear’ a play or an opera):
Le veau d’or – the devil’s song to the Golden Calf during which he whips up the locals into an inebriated state that is nearly orgiastic.
Gloire immortelle – the famous Soldier’s Chorus.
Learn these two hit tunes and when you hear Faust, you’ll feel right at home.
For the full list of recommended recordings visit Maestro's Selection.
Gounod was born in Paris on June 18, 1818. His mother, a local piano teacher, introduced him to music and later inspired him to attend the Paris Conservatoire. After completing his studies in Paris, Gounod traveled to Italy in 1838 and was influenced by the music of Schumann and Berlioz. One year later, he won the Prix de Rome for his cantata Fernand.
Throughout his life, Gounod remained fascinated with religious music, especially 16th century polyphonic music. In 1843, he returned to Paris and took the position as organist of Mission Etrangères. Later that year he wrote the mass "Messe Sollennelle," which launched his reputation as a noteworthy composer.
In 1851, Gounod wrote his first opera Sapho (1851), but it wasn't until 8 years later when Gounod was recognized for his first great opera, Faust. However, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and his move to England brought about an unprofitable interruption to his fame.
By his death in 1893, Gounod had completed 12 operas, including Mireille (1864) and Romeo et Juliette (1867), yet it was his fascination with liturgical music that inspired him to the end.
No Language Barrier!
Enjoy the beauty of the original language and understand it all with English translations. The English text is projected on a screen above the stage for each opera. Easy to follow, and easy to understand every twist and turn of the plot!