Opéra en 5 actes
Composer: Charles Gounod (1818–1893)
Libretto : Jules Barbier & Michael Carré, after Goethe’s Faust, part 1 (1808)
First performed : Théâtre Lyrique (boulevard du Temple), Paris, 19 March 1859
SETTING: Germany, 16th century
PLOT: The philosopher Faust sells his soul to Méphistophèles in exchange for youth. Faust seduces and then abandons Marguerite, who gives birth to an illegitimate child. He then murders her brother, the soldier Valentin, who curses Marguerite with his dying breath. Marguerite goes mad and kills her child; Faust and Méphistophèles go to the prison to rescue her, but she rejects them. She dies and her soul rises up to heaven.
‘Faust’ was one of the most successful operas of the nineteenth century. Like Berlioz ('La damnation de Faust', 1846: cyoutube.com/watch?v=0-x-9WzLS7Q&list=PLoB7Fd8EvhHagG5GFHsyUz60HRHvdsPla) before him, Gounod read Faust as a young man, as a 20-year-old Prix de Rome student, and dreamt of composing music for it. (Goethe himself had wanted Mozart or Meyerbeer to set it to music.)
It was surprisingly unsuccessful when it was first performed; it was found too learned and not tuneful enough. The problem was that Gounod’s music was in a different style from French grand opéra to which audiences were used; it was an early opéra lyrique. Berlioz, however, admired the work, going so far as to use the word ‘masterpiece’. Reyer considered it ‘among the most beautiful works of the time; a work in which inspiration and beauties of the first order erase very light imperfections’.
The audience did not embrace ‘Faust’ until the revised version of 1862. From that time, Gounod was seen as France’s leading opera composer. Its 500th Parisian performance took place in 1887, its 1,500th in 1912 and its 2,000th in 1934.
Trio final: ‘Alerte, alerte, ou vous êtes perdus’
Marguerite has been sentenced to death for murdering her baby. Faust has come to rescue her, but she is terror stricken when Méphistophèles appears, and commends her soul to Heaven. As Faust and Méphistophèles leave (or descend into hell), a chorus of angels proclaims that Marguerite has been saved.
Faust (tenor): Nicolai Gedda:
Méphistophèles (bass): Boris Christoff
Marguerite (soprano): Victoria de los Ángeles
Conductor : André Cluytens
Orchestre & Chœurs du Théâtre National de l’Opéra