Music with Ease > 19th Century French Opera > History of Faust (Gounod)
The History of Faust
The Opera by Charles François Gounod
In the matter of the libretto of "Faust" Gounod was fortunate in finding a coadjutor in M. Jules Barbier, one of the most fertile of French dramatic authors. Meeting Gounod one day, Barbier confided to him that he wished to make an opera libretto out of "Faust." Gounod jumped at an idea which he had himself secretly cherished for years, and the collaboration was arranged there and then. Barbier proceeded to discuss the plan with his friend and habitual co-worker, M. Carré, who, curiously enough, had just had a small piece called Faust et Marguerite acted at the Gymnase. On this work Carré had probably expended all the courage he possessed. At any rate he accepted with the greatest stolidity the notion which already fired Barbier and Gounod with such enthusiasm. The plot, he said, was worn out; it was too vast; it was not theatrical enough; and so on. Still, though he had no faith in the project, he would take his usual share of the collaboration. As it turned out, Carrés share was very limited -- just enough, in fact, to enable him to claim to have his name connected with the immortal work. At the end of the year the opera was finished.
Marie Caroline Miolan-Carvalho as Marguerite in Gounod's opera, Faust (1860)
Now came the question of finding a manager who would produce it. One after another was tried in vain. Roqueplan, described as the most Parisian, the shrewdest of business men, would have nothing to do with the work. The plot, he averred, was out of date. Imagine a theme of such human interest being ever out of date! Alphonse Reyer succeeded Roqueplan at the Imperial Academy of Music, and to him the manuscript was next submitted. "Not stagey enough," he exclaimed; and again "Faust" went on its travels. At last the manager of the Théâtre Lyrique decided to give the almost despairing artists a chance. Gounods score pleased him, he was good enough to say. But, alas! the long-deferred hope was still further deferred. A "Faust" by Dennery intervened, and delayed Gounods opera for a whole year.
When at length the work was put in rehearsal, it was only to encounter fresh vicissitudes. For many months, as we read in Marie de Bovets "Life of Gounod," the two librettists, the composer, and the manager, M. Carvalho, met in the latters office, and strange scenes were exacted sometimes until far into the night. Carvalho was capricious, and day after day altered his mind about this or that. Carré, doubtful of success as he had been from the first, yielded weakly to every whim. Gounod protested, pleaded, threatened, and then yielded too, mainly out of deference to his nervous system, which always got excited by these encounters. Barbier alone held out -- fought inch by inch to maintain the integrity of his work. But for him these "epic battles" in the managers office might have resulted in a "Faust" very different from that which was finally brought to the test of a public interpretation on the 19th of March 1859. It is told, indeed, that poor Barbier was so prostrated by the wranglings at these nocturnal sittings and by the worries of the rehearsals that he was unable to be present when the great night arrived.
And what, then, was the immediate fate of a work which had involved so much preliminary toil and anxiety? Did Fortune smile on "Faust" that spring night? Alas! its hour of triumph was not yet come. "Decidedly the devil does not bring luck to M. Gounod," was the significant observation of a cynical "first-nighter." To say that the opera was a failure would be an exaggeration, but it certainly was not appreciated as it afterwards came to be appreciated. Scudo, of the Revue des Deux Mondes, prince of music critics, said it had only a waltz and a chorus; Berlioz (but then he was jealous) declared that the composer had not the smallest conception of the subject he sought to treat! A certain Martin dAngers, thundering in a musical journal, concluded his notice with the hope that Gounod would never repeat the experiment. It was unlikely; masterpieces are not often duplicated. As for the public attitude, that can best be expressed by saying it was not hostile but hesitating. "The most contradictory feelings," writes one, "were manifested with regard to the new work, and opposing tides of opinion stemmed the regular current in one direction or the other." There was no enthusiasm. The Parisians went to the Théâtre Lyrique, but receipts were uncertain and success was slow. Manager Carvalho, convinced of the final triumph of the opera, perseveringly pushed it on to a fifty-seventh performance, at which point he failed and the theatre was closed -- a result the import of which does not require to be emphasised.
Meanwhile, the composer had been trying to find a publisher for his score. But the publishers, like the managers, were shy. Nay, they shunned "Faust" as if it were the devil in propriâ personâ. Heugel wanted to print it, declaring that the waltz alone would cover the expense; but Heugel had a partner, and he decided that the firm could not publish a failure. It seemed as if Gounod and his librettists must undertake the printing at their own cost. They had, in fact, almost decided upon that course when the score was shown to one M. Choudens, who had just started business. Choudens resolved to risk all his capital on it. He bought "Faust" for 10,000 francs, and laid the foundation of the fortunes of his house. Rarely, indeed, has so hazardous an experiment met with so rich a reward. "Faust" has proved a veritable gold mine for the publishers and impresarios alike. In thirty years from the date of Choudens bold venture, the modest sum he so timidly advanced brought him in nearly three millions of francs, representing an investment at a thousand per cent. The English publishing right, it may be added, is conserved; but, happily for the popularity of the opera, the performing rights in England were lost to the composer.
In this connection, a word or two may be said about the first performance of "Faust" in England. It was at Her Majestys Theatre on June 12, 1863, and such was the dubiety as to the success of the opera even then that Messrs. Chappell, who had secured the publishing rights in this country for the ridiculous sum of £30 (curiously enough, Gounod received from Messrs. Boosey £800 for his next opera, "Mireille," which was never a success), had to pay Mr. Mapleson £500 to induce him to stage it! The story is succinctly told in both Mr. Kuhes and Signor Arditis "Reminiscences." In our days, as Mr. Kuhe observes, whenever, through unforeseen circumstances, it is necessary to substitute for the opera to be performed on a certain evening some other work, the choice of a manager generally lies between "Faust" and "Carmen." In either case he feels that the disappointment of the audience will vanish as soon as the ear is greeted by the strains of Gounod or Bizet. But bold indeed would have been accounted the prophet foretelling in 1863 a success so enduring as that which has fallen to Gounods great work.
London gave by no means a favourable reception to the opera, though there was a very strong cast, including Titiens, Trebelli, Giuglini, and Santley. Signor Arditi, who was then conductor at Her Majestys, tells how his orchestra cared so little for the music that he had to encourage them to persevere by the assurance that they would be delighted with it on a more intimate acquaintance. At the performance nothing seemed to take the fancy of the audience but the old mens and the Soldiers Chorus and the tenor air "Salve Dimora." Signor Schira, who had just had an opera of his own produced at Her Majestys, was present, and at one part stopped his ears with his hands, exclaiming aloud: "That is execrable. It reminds me of a couple of cats squabbling on the tiles." At the second representation the audience were mush less frigid; at the third the turning point on the road to success was reached. Still, the work had many enemies, and encountered a great deal of opposition and unmerited abuse. We have Arditis word for it that although it was constantly repeated, it was not a financial success during the first year.
In the following year, 1864, pay and popularity joined hands in a grip that has "held" ever since. Mario, the great tenor, then figures in the title-rôle -- in appearance and as an actor an ideal Faust, though vocally Faust was never one of his peerless parts. Probably the very best Faust yet seen, from the point of view of personal appearance as well as vocally and dramatically, is Jean de Reszke, though Nicolini was also superb in the part. Towards the end of the 1864 season Madame Patti appeared as the heroine, when for the first time was heard a Margaret such as Gounod might have dreamed of -- perfection of voice, singing, and acting being in the great diva personified. "What a feast it was," exclaims the veteran Kuhe, "to hear the Jewel Song given at length with matchless excellence, and to see associated with the singer such a Faust as Mario looked!" A few years later London opera-goers were sent into raptures by the appearance as Margaret of Christine Nilsson -- in looks an ideal Gretchen such as any student of Goethe might picture, and in dramatic intensity equal to any artist who had previously been seen in the rôle.
The Margaret of the 1863 London production was, as has been indicated, the famous Titiens, but it was impossible to reconcile her tall and massive figure with the girlishness of an ideal Gretchen, though it is said that her singing of the passionate music in the church scene and final trio has never been surpassed. In the Paris production of 1859 the Gretchen was Mme. Carvalho, the managers wife. Her voice was described as "a thin, shrill soprano, as slender as her person, cut in two by three or four hasty notes -- a regular bird pipe." The Jewel Song is often said to have been written expressly for her, but this is untrue. It was with reluctance that she agreed to sing it, dreading lest her personal success might not sufficiently compensate for the strain on her voice. Ultimately she conquered the natural defects of her voice until Gounod wrote of "that marvellous style and power of execution which have set her in the highest place among contemporary singers."