Music with Ease > 19th Century French Opera > Faust (Gounod) - Synopsis
Faust - Synopsis
An Opera by Charles Gounod
Opera, in five acts, by Gounod; words by Barbier and Carré. Produced, Théâtre Lyrique, Paris, March 19, 1859, with Miolan-Carvalho as Marguerite; Grand Opéra, Paris, March 3, 1869, with Christine Nilsson as Marguerite, Colin as Faust, and Faure as Méphistophélès. London, Her Majestys Theatre, June 11, 1863; Royal Italian Opera, Covent Garden, July 2, 1863, in Italian, as "Faust e Margherita"; Her Majestys Theatre, January 23, 1864, in an English version by Chorley, for which, Santley being the Valentine, Gounod composed what was destined to become one of the most popular numbers of the opera, "Even bravest heart may swell" ("Dio possente"). New York, Academy of Music, November 26, 1863, in Italian, with Clara Louise Kellogg (Margharita), Henrietta Sulzer (Siebel), Fanny Stockton (Martha), Francesco Mazzoleni (Faust), Hannibal Biachi (Méphistophélès), G. Yppolito (Valentine), D. Coletti (Wagner). Metropolitan Opera House, opening night, October 22, 1883, with Nilsson, Scalchi, Lablache, Campanini, Novara, Del Puente.
FAUST, a learned doctor
VALENTINE, a soldier, brother to Marguerite
SIEBEL, a village youth, in love with Marguerite
WAGNER, a student
MARTHA SCHWERLEIN, neighbour to Marguerite. Mezzo-soprano
Students, soldiers, villagers, angels, demons, Cleopatra, Laïs, Helen of Troy, and others.
Time: 16th Century.
Popular in this country from the night of its American production, Gounods "Faust" nevertheless did not fully come into its own here until during the Maurice Grau regime at the Metropolitan Opera House. Sung in French by great artists, every one of whom was familiar with the traditions of the Grand Opéra, Paris, the work was given so often that William J. Henderson cleverly suggested "Faust-spielhaus" as an appropriate substitute for the name of New Yorks yellow brick temple of opera; a mot which led Krehbiel, in a delightful vein of banter, to exclaim, "Henderson, your German jokes are better than your serious German!"
Several distinguished singers have been heard in this country in the role of Faust. It is doubtful if that beautiful lyric number, Faust's romance, "Salut demeure chaste et pure" (Hail to the dwelling chaste and pure), ever has been delivered here with more exquisite vocal phrasing than by Campanini, who sang the Italian version, in which the romance becomes "Salve dimora casta e pura." That was in the old Academy of Music days, with Christine Nilsson as Marguerite, which she had sung at the revival of the work by the Paris Grand Opéra. The more impassioned outbursts of the Faust role also were sung with fervid expression by Campanini, so great an artist, in the best Italian manner, that he had no Italian successor until Caruso appeared upon the scene.
Polish opera singer Edouard de Reszke (1853-1917) as Méphistophélès in Gounods Faust
Yet, in spite of the Faust of these two Italian artists, Jean de Reszke remains the ideal Faust of memory. With a personal appearance distinguished beyond that of any other operatic artist who has been heard here, an inborn chivalry of deportment that made him a lover after the heart of every woman, and a refinement of musical expression that clarified every role he undertook, his Faust was the most finished portrayal of that character in opera that has been heard here. Jean de Reszkes great distinction was that everything he did was in perfect taste. Haven't you seen Faust after Faust keep his hat on while making love to Marguerite? Jean de Reszke, a gentleman, removed his before ever he breathed of romance. Muratore is an admirable Faust, with all the refinements of phrasing and acting that characterize the best traditions of the Grand Opera, Paris.
Great tenors do not, as a rule, arrive in quick succession. In this country we have had two distinct tenor eras and now are in a third. We had the era of Italo Campanini, from 1873 until his voice became impaired, about 1880. Not until eleven years later, 1891, did opera in America become so closely associated with another tenor, that there may be said to have begun the era of Jean de Reszke. It lasted until that artists voluntary retirement. We are now in the era of Enrico Caruso, whose repertoire includes Faust in French.
Christine Nilsson, Adelina Patti, Melba, Eames, Calvé, have been among the famous Marguerites heard here. Nilsson and Eames may have seemed possessed of too much natural reserve for the role; but Gounods librettists made Marguerite more refined than Goethes Gretchen. Patti acted the part with great simplicity and sang it flawlessly. In fact hr singing of the ballad "Il était un roi de Thule" (There once was a king of Thule) was a perfect example of the artistically artless in song. It seemed to come from her lips merely because it chanced to be running through her head. Melbas type of beauty was somewhat mature for the impersonation of the character, but her voice lent itself beautifully to it. Calvés Marguerite is recalled as a logically developed character from first note to last, and as one of the most original and interesting of Marguerites. But Americans insisted on Calvés doing nothing but Carmen. When she sang in "Faust" she appeared to them a Carmen masquerading as Marguerite. So back to Carmen she had to go. Sembrich and Farrar are other Marguerites identified with the Metropolitan Opera House.
Plancon unquestionably was the finest Méphistophélès in the history of the opera in America up to the present time -- vivid, sonorous, and satanically polished or fantastical, as the role demanded.
Gounods librettists, Michel Carré and Jules Barbier, with a true Gallic gift for practicable stage effect, did not seek to utilize the whole of Goethes "Faust" for their book, but contented themselves with the love story of Faust and Marguerite, which also happens to have been entirely original with the author of the play, since it does not occur in the legends. But because the opera does not deal with the whole of "Faust," Germany, where Gounods work enjoys great popularity, refuses to accept it under the same title as the play, and calls it "Marguerite" after the heroine.
As reconstructed for the Grand Opéra, where it was brought out ten years after its production at the Théâtre Lyrique, "Faust" develops as follows:
There is a brief prelude. A fortissimo on a single note, then mysterious, chromatic chords, and then the melody which Gounod composed for Santley.
Act I. Fausts study. The philosopher is discovered alone, seated at a table on which an open tone lies before him. His lamp flickers in its socket. Night is about turning to dawn.
Faust despairs of solving the riddle of the universe. Aged, his pursuits of science vain, he seizes a flask of poison, pours it into a crystal goblet, and is about to drain it, when, day having dawned, the cheerful song of young women on their way to work arrests him. The song dies away. Again he raises the goblet, only to pause once more, as he hears a chorus of labourers, with whose voices those of the women unite. Faust, beside himself at these sounds of joy and youth, curses life and advancing age, and calls upon Satan to aid him.
The vision of Margeurite in Faust's study in Act 1 of Gounod's opera Faust as performed at Covent Garden in 1864. Méphistophélès was played by Jean-Baptiste Faure, and Faust by Giovanni Mario. From a lithograph on contemporary sheet music cover.
There is a flash of red light and out of it, up through the floor, rises Méphistophélès, garbed as a cavalier, and in vivid red. Alternately suave, satirical, and demoniacal in bearing, he offers to Faust wealth and power. The philosopher, however, wants neither, unless with the gift also is granted youth. "Je veux la jeunesse" (What I long for is youth). That is easy for his tempter, if the aged philosopher, with pen dipped in his blood, will but sign away his soul. Faust hesitates. At a gesture from Méphistophélès the scene at the back opens and discloses Marguerite seated at her spinning wheel, her long blond braid falling down her back. "O Merveille!" (A miracle!) exclaims Faust, at once signs the parchment, and drains to the vision of Marguerite a goblet proffered him by Méphistophélès. The scene fades away, the philosophers garb drops off Faust. The Grey beard and all other marks of old age vanish. He stands revealed a youthful gallant, eager for adventure, instead of the disappointed scholar weary of life. There is an impetuous duet for Faust and Méphistophélès: "A moi les plaisirs" ("Tis pleasure I covet). They dash out of the cell-like study in which Faust vainly has devoted himself to science.
Act II. Outside of one of the city gates. To the left is an inn, bearing as a sign a carved image of Bacchus astride a keg. It is kermis time. There are students, among them Wagner, burghers old and young, soldiers, maidens, and matrons.
The act opens with a chorus. "Faust" has been given so often that this chorus probably is accepted by most people as a commonplace. In point of fact it is an admirable piece of characterization. The groups of people are effectively differentiated in the score. The toothless chatter of the old men (in high falsetto) is an especially amusing detail In the end the choral groups are deftly united.
Valentine and Siebel join the kermis throng. The former is examining a medallion which his sister, Marguerite, has given him as a charm against harm in battle. He sings a cavatina. It is this number which Gounod composed for Santley. As most if not all the performances of "Faust" in America, up to the time Grau introduced the custom of giving opera in the language of the original score, were in Italian, this cavatina is familiarly known as the "Dio possente" (To thee, O Father!). In French it is "A toi, Seigneur et Roi des Cieux" (To Thee, O God, and King of Heaven). Both in the Italian and French, Valentine prays to Heaven to protect his sister during his absence. In English, "Even bravest heart may swell," the number relates chiefly to Valentines ambitions as a soldier.
Wagner mounts a table and starts the "Song of the Rat." After a few lines he is interrupted by the sudden appearance of Méphistophélès, who after a brief parley, sings "Le veau dor" (The golden calf), a cynical dissertation on mans worship of mammon. He reads the hands of those about him. To Siebel he prophesies that every flower he touches shall wither. Rejecting the wine proffered him by Wagner, he strikes with his sword the sign of the inn, the keg, astride of which sits Bacchus. Like a stream of wine fire flows from the keg into the goblet held under the spout by Méphistophélès, who raising the vessel, pledges the health of Marguerite.
This angers Valentine and leads to the "Scène des epées (The scene of the swords.) Valentine unsheathes his blade. Méphistophélès, with his sword describes a circle about himself. Valentine makes a pass at his foe. As the thrust carries his sword into the magic circle, the blade breaks. He stands in impotent rage, while Méphistophélès mocks him. At last, realizing who his opponent is, Valentine grasps his sword by its broken end, and extends the cruciform hilt toward the red cavalier. The other soldiers follow their leaders example. Méphistophélès no longer mocking, cowers before the cross-shaped sword hilts held toward him, and slinks away. A sonorous chorus, "Puisque tu brises le fer" (Since you have broken the blade) for Valentine and his followers distinguishes this scene.
The crowd gathers for the kermis dance -- "the waltz from Faust," familiar the world round, and undulating through the score to the end of the gay scene, which also concludes the act. While the crowd is dancing and singing, Méphistophélès enters with Faust. Marguerite approaches. She is on her way from church, prayerbook in hand. Siebel seeks to join her. But every time the youth steps toward her he confronts the grinning yet sinister visage of Méphistophélès, who dexterously manages to get in his way. Meanwhile Faust has joined her. There is a brief colloquy. He offers his arm and conduct through the crowd. She modestly declines. The episode, though short, is charmingly melodious. The phrases for Marguerite can be made to express coyness, yet also show that she is not wholly displeased with the attention paid her by the handsome stranger. She goes her way. The dance continues. "Valsons toujours" (Waltz always!).
Marguerite's garden in Act 3 of the opera Faust by Gounod as presented in the original production at the Théâtre Lyrique on 19 March 1859. Set design by Charles-Antoine Cambon and Joseph Thierry.
Act III. Marguerites garden. At the back a wall with a wicket door. To the left a bower. On the right Marguerites house, with a bow window facing the audience. Trees, shrubs, flowers beds, etc.
Siebel enters by the wicket. Stopping at one of the flower beds and about to pluck a nosegay, he sings the graceful "Faites-lui mes aveux" (Bear my avowal to her). But when he culls a flower, it shrivels in his hand, as Méphistophélès had predicted. The boy is much perturbed. Seeing, however, a little font with holy water suspended by the wall of the house, he dips his fingers in it. Now the flowers no longer shrivel as he culls them. He arranges them in a bouquet, which he lays on the house step, where he hopes Marguerite will see it. He then leaves.
Faust enters with Méphistophélès, but bids the latter withdraw, as if he sensed the incongruity of his presence near the home of a maiden so pure as Marguerite. The tempter having gone, Faust proceeds to apostrophize Marguerites dwelling in the exquisite romance, "Salut! demeure chaste et pure."
Méphistophélès returns. With him he brings a casket of jewels and a handsome bouquet. With these he replaces Siebels flowers. The two men then withdraw into a shadowy recess of the garden to await Marguerites return.
She enters by the wicket. Her thoughts are with the handsome stranger -- above her in station, therefore the more flattering and fascinating in her eyes -- who addressed her at the kermis. Pensively she seats herself at her spinning wheel and, while turning it, without much concentration of mind on her work, sings "Le Roi de Thule," the ballad of the King of Thule, her thoughts, however, returning to Faust before she resumes and finishes the number, which is set in the simple fashion of a folk-song.
Approaching the house, and about to enter, she sees the flowers, stops to admire them, and to bestow a thought of compassion upon Siebel for his unrequited devotion, then sees and hesitatingly opens the casket of jewels. Their appeal to her feminine vanity is too great to permit her to return them at once to the casket. Decking herself out in them, she regards herself and the sparkling gems in the handglass that came with them, then bursts into the brilliant "Air des Bijous" (Jewel Song):
Ah! Je ris de me voir
Si belle en ce miroir!...
Est-ce toi, Marguerite?
(Ah! I laugh just to view
-- Marguerite! Is it you? --
Such a belle in the glass!...)
one of the most brilliant airs for coloratura soprano, affording the greatest contrast to the folklike ballad which preceded it, and making with it one of the most effective scenes in opera for a soprano who can rise to its demands: the chaste simplicity required for the ballad, the joyous abandon and faultless execution of elaborate embellishments involved in the "Air des Bijoux." When well done, the scene is brilliantly successful; for, added to its own conspicuous merit, is the fact that, save for the very brief episode in Act II, this is the first time in two and a half acts that the limpid and grateful tones of a solo high soprano have fallen upon the ear.
Martha, the neighbour and companion of Marguerite, joins her. In the manner of the average duenna, whose chief duty in opera is to encourage love affairs, however fraught with peril to her charge, she is not at all disturbed by the gift of the jewels or by the entrance upon the scene of Faust and Méphistophélès. Nor, when the latter tells her that her husband has been killed in the wars, does she hesitate, after a few exclamations of rather forced grief, to seek consolation on the arm of the flatterer in red, who leads her off into the garden, leaving Faust with Marguerite. During the scene immediately ensuing the two couples are sometimes in view, sometimes lost to sight in the garden. The music is a quartet, beginning with Fausts "Prenez mon bras un moment" (Pray lean upon mine arm). It is artistically individualized. The couples and each member thereof are deftly characterized in Gounods score.
For a moment Méphistophélès holds the stage alone. Standing by a bed of flowers in an attitude of benediction, he invokes their subtle perfume to lull Marguerite into a false sense of security. "Il était temps!" (It was the hour), begins the soliloquy. For a moment, as it ends, the flowers glow. Méphistophélès withdraws into the shadows. Faust and Marguerite appear. Marguerite plucks the petals of a flower: "He loves me-he loves me not-he loves!" There are two ravishing duets for the lovers, "Laisse-moi contempler ton visage" (Let me gaze upon thy beauty), and "O nuit damour. . . ciel radieux!"
(Oh, night of love! Oh, starlit sky!). The music fairly enmeshes the listener in its enchanting measures.
Faust and Marguerite part, agreeing to meet on the morrow -- "Qui, demain! Dès laurore!" (Yes, tomorrow! At dawn!). She enters the house. Faust turns to leave the garden. He is confronted by Méphistophélès, who points to the window. The casement is opened by Marguerite, who believes she is alone. Kneeling in the window, she gazes out upon the night flooded with moonlight. "Il maime;. . . Ah! Presse ton retour, cher bien-aimé! Viens!" (He loves me; ah! haste your return, dearly beloved! Come!).
With a cry, Faust rushes to the open casement, sinks upon his knees. Marguerite, with an ecstatic exclamation, leans out of the embrasure and allows him to take her into his arms. Her head rests upon his shoulder.
At the wicket is Méphistophélès, shaking with laughter.
Act IV. The first scene in this act takes place in Marguerites room. No wonder Méphistophélès laughed when he saw her in Fausts arms. She has been betrayed and deserted. The faithful Siebel, however, still offers her his love -- "Si la bonheur à sourire tinvite" (When all ways young and pleasant, May was blooming) but Marguerite still loves the man who betrayed her, and hopes against hope that he will return.
This episode is followed by the cathedral scene. Marguerite has entered the edifice and knelt to pray. But, invisible to her, Méphistophélès stands beside her and reminds her of her guilt. A chorus of invisible demons calls to her accusingly. Méphistophélès foretells her doom. The "Dies irae," accompanied on the organ, is heard. Marguerites voice joins with those of the worshippers. But Méphistophélès, when the chant is ended, calls out that for her, a lost one, there yawns the abyss. She flees is terror. This is one of the most significant episodes of the work.
Now comes a scene in the street, in front of Marguerites house. The soldiers return from war and sing their familiar chorus, "Gloire immortelle" (Glory immortal). Valentine, forewarned by Siebels troubled mien that all is not well with Marguerite, goes into the house. Faust and Méphistophélès come upon the scene. Facing the house, and accompanying himself on his guitar, the red gallant sings an offensive serenade. Valentine, aroused by the insult, which he correctly interprets as aimed at his sister, rushes out. There is a spirited trio, "Redouble, ô Dieu puissant: (Give double strength, great God on high). Valentine smashes the guitar with his sword, then attacks Faust, whose sword-thrust, guided by Méphistophélès, mortally wounds Marguerites brother. Marguerite comes into the street, throws herself over Valentines body. With his dying breath her brother curses her.
Sometimes the order of the scenes in this act is changed. It may open with the street scene, where the girls at the fountain hold themselves aloof from Marguerite. Here the brief meeting between the girl and Siebel takes place. Marguerite then goes into the house; the soldiers return, etc. The act then ends with the cathedral scene.
Act V. When Gounod revised "Faust" for the Grand Opéra, Paris, the traditions of that house demanded a more elaborate ballet than the dance in the kermis scene afforded. Consequently the authors reached beyond the love story of Faust and Marguerite into the second part of Goethes drama and utilized the legendary revels of Walpurgis Night (eve of May 1st) on the Brocken, the highest point of the Hartz mountains. Here Faust meets the courtesans of antiquity -- Lais, Cléopatra, Helen of Troy, Phryne. "Les Nubiennes," "Cleopatra et la Coupe dOr" (Cleopatra and the Goblet of Gold), "Les Troyennes" (The Troyan Women), "Variation," and "Dance de Phryine" are the dances in this ballet. More frequently than not the scene is omitted. To connect it with the main story, there comes to Faust, in the midst of the revels, a vision of Marguerite. Around her neck he beholds a red line, "like the cut of an axe." He commands Méphistophélès to take him to her.
They find her in prison, condemned to death for killing her child. There is an impassioned duet for Faust and Marguerite. He begs her to make her escape with him. But her mind is wandering. In snatches of melody from preceding scenes, she recalls the episode at the kermis, the night in the garden. She sees Méphistophélès, senses his identity with the arch-fiend. There is a superb trio, in which Marguerite ecstatically calls upon angels to intervene and save her -- "Anges purs! Anges radieux! (Angels pure, radiant, bright). The voices mount higher and
higher, Marguerites soaring to a splendid climax. She dies.
"Condemned!" cries Méphistophélès.
"Saved," chant ethereal voices.
The rear wall of the prison opens. Angels are seen bearing Marguerite heavenward. Faust falls on his knees in prayer. Méphistophélès turns away, "barred by the shining sword of an archangel."
During the ten years that elapsed between the productions at the Théâtre Lyrique and the Grand Opéra, "Faust" had only thirty-seven performances. Within eight years (1887) after it was introduced to the Grand Opera, it had 1000 performances there. From 1901-1910 it was given nearly 3000 times in Germany. After the score had been declined by several publishers, it was brought out by Choudens, who paid Gounod 10,000 francs ($2000) for it, and made a fortune out of the venture. For the English rights the composer is said to have received only 40 pounds ($200) and then only upon the insistence of Chorley, the author of the English version.