FAUST is the opera in which Madame Eames has appeared most often in this country. No less than sixteen composers have used Goethe’s poem as a libretto. Many of these works are excellent, and frequently we hear excerpts from them in our concerts. But Gounod has clad the words in musical raiment of such surpassing loveliness that he has almost robbed Goethe of his masterpiece. At this day, on hearing the name Faust we think of the opera simultaneously with, if not before, the poem. He has made of it a “grand opera in every sense; and yet so abounding in melody that even an untrained ear is captured.
There is no overture. It is a fact without a cause that some operas have overtures and some have not. Faust ” opens with a short orchestral prelude that is somber and subduedquite suggestive of the doubt and darkness that characterize the scene upon which the curtain rises.
Faust, the philosopher, the student, is seated in his cell, surrounded. by books, parchments, chemicals, skulls, and hour-glasses. He has grown old in his delving after the mysteries, and even now he has devoted the whole night to study. The lamp burns low, and all about him is dark and gloomy. He closes his book sadly, and exclaims in tones that seem spontaneous, but are, nevertheless, in accurate rhythm with the orchestra, ” In vain!” He does not find the knowledge he seeks; his investigations are without avail. It seems strange to hear these laments sounded by a tenor voice; but this trifling incongruity of high tones and old age does not last long. The character Faust is one of the greatest tenor rôles.
His soliloquy is presently broken in upon by a chorus behind the scenes. It is the song of reapers going to their daily work. The morning light streams in at the window which Faust throws open as he listens. But sunshine itself is not brighter than that song. It is so joyous and light-hearted that the listener fairly inhales the dew-laden air of the fields. This first melody in the opera is as perfect a morceau for its size as was ever written. The solitaire in his cell is also affected by the radiant song, and he envies the reapers for their contentment and for their youth. Yes, youth is what he longs for.
Altho Faust has declared his study to be “in vain,” he has, nevertheless, acquired the accomplishment of being able to call up Mephistopheles (this is the operatic name for the great demon), and in his present despair he resorts to this power. Mephisto appears without delay. Flaming colors and a bass voice are the essential attributes of this great character. It seems rather hard on our artists who sing to low G that a bass voice is so often chosen to represent iniquity; but such happens to be the case. Mephisto is invariably clad in red from head to toe; exaggerated eyebrows and a fantastic cap with unobtrusive horns complete his diabolical appearance.
In a continuous flow of harmony, Faust informs his visitor of his wants, and Mephisto promptly states his conditions : for the price of his soul after death the philosopher shall now be granted his youth. Faust hesitates at this, whereupon the wily demon causes him to behold a vision. A bright light at the back of the stage suddenly reveals the lovely Marguerite at her spinning-wheel. While the picture lasts there is heard in the orchestra a suggestion of one of the themes that come afterward in the love-scene of the opera; this is accompanied by a soft tremolo on the violins. Forest scenes, moonlight, and dreams are very often represented in music by a violin tremolo. When the vision passes away, Faust is decided, and he drinks the potion Mephistopheles prescribes. Presto ! The gray hair and beard disappear; the long robe falls off, and Faust is a young mantall and hand-some, as a tenor should be. He comes forward with an elastic step and sings of youth and its joys, which now are his. The music has undergone a metamorphosis like the singer. It throbs with a life and vigor which were lacking before ; and this final song of the first act is one of the best tenor solos in the opera.
The second act is chiefly remarkable for its choruses. It is called the Kyrmess, and represents a street thronged with villagers in festive array and mood. They dance and sing in honor of their soldiers, who start this day to war. The opening chorus is divided among the students, girls, soldiers, and citizens, the latter being represented by old men, who come forward and sing their delightful refrain in thin, piping voices. Every phrase of this first chorus is a surprise, and each one seems more fascinating than the preceding. It is all in a rapid, tripping tempo, and fairly bubbles over with good humor.
In this act we are introduced to all the principal characters. Siebel, the village youth who loves Marguerite, is already on the scene, and very soon her soldier-brother, Valentine, appears. This is the baritone rôle, and, while not a long one, is still important, and requires a great artist, for he has a splendid death-scene in the fourth act. His first solo begins with the words ” O santa medaglia ! ” (” O blessed medallion ! “). He sings to the token which his sister has just given him at parting. He is depressed at the thought of leaving Marguerite alone, for she is an orphan ; but Siebel consoles him with promises to protect and watch over her.
Mephisto is the next one to come upon the scene, and, in spite of his satanic make-up, the villagers do not recognize his ” name and station.” He joins in their merrymaking, and soon astounds them with his wizard tricks and actions. He sings a song about “Goldthe lord of the earth.” It is one of the three important solos of this rôle, and is a most characteristic piece. One has not the least doubt that he learned it at home! Such eccentric, sardonic intervals and rhythm at once suggest an unholy origin.
The peasants soon become so convinced of this stranger’s evil power that they unanimously hold up the hilts of their swords, which are formed like a cross, and before this emblem Mephisto trembles. A very strong and inspiring chorus accompanies this move on the part of the peasants.
Faust, the handsome cavalier, now comes forward. After a short dialog between this master and servantwho we know are under compact to change places in the hereafterthe chorus again take possession of the stage. They sing first a charming waltz song, which of itself seems to start them all to dancing. And then comes the celebrated “Faust Waltz,” during which the listener should pay most attention to the orchestra. There is some singing and much dancing on the stage, but the instruments have the most important part. Of this well-known composition it is unnecessary to say more than that it is a splendid waltz.
Its brilliant rhythm is temporarily diverted by the entrance of Marguerite, who is on her way home from church. She carries a prayer-book in her hand, and is dressed in white, which betokens innocence. This costume of the heroine has been considered as imperative as the make-up of Mephisto ; but Madame Eames carefully studied old Nuremburg pictures and resurrected the correct style of that period, which some-what departs from operatic tradition.
On seeing Marguerite, Faust addresses her as ” My charming lady,” and begs per-mission to walk home with her. To which Marguerite very properly replies that she is neither ” charming ” nor a ” lady,” and can go home ” alone.” The question and response last only a moment, but the two themes are most exquisitely adapted to the words, and should be noted, as they recur later on in the opera. Especially lovely are these first notes of the soprano; and after so much chorus and bass and orchestra, they soar out like strokes from a silver bell.
Marguerite goes on her homeward way, and leaves Faust more in love than before. Mephisto rejoices, and the waltz is resumed. Thus ends Act II.
And now for the Garden Scenea veritable bouquet of melodies, flowers that never fade ! The first aria is, indeed, called the “Flower Song,” but only because Siebel sings to the flowers he has brought for Marguerite. Siebel is the contralto rôle, and therefore always taken by a woman. It is a very short part, but as two of the sweetest songs in the opera belong to Siebel, great artists are glad to take the character. The short prelude by the orchestra before the ” Flower Song ” is as artistic as any other part. It seems to smooth the brow and quiet the mind, and coax the hearer into just the right mood “to be lulled by sounds of sweetest melody.” Siebel’s song is indeed “sweetest melody “so much so that a poor singer can hardly spoil it. That gentle and caressing theme captures the heart every time.
After Siebel has gone, there enter Faust and Mephistopheles (who gains admission everywhere). The latter is in high spirits, and Faust is in love. They look upon the garden with different emotions. Faust rhapsodizes and is lost in romance; but Mephisto’s more practical vision perceives the flowers which Siebel has left at Marguerite’s door. He goes off at once to procure a present that shall outshine these. During his absence Faust sings the ” Salve Dimore.” These are the first words of the song, which mean ” Hail ! dwelling pure and simple; ” but this composition is always given its Italian name. It is interesting to note the names by which celebrated arias are known. Some are designated by the subject, as the “Jewel Song,” “Flower Song.” Then, again, some are known by the rhythm, as the “Waltz Song ” from ” Romeo and Juliet,” or the “Polacca from ` Mignon.’ ” Then, there are others whose names only indicate the number of voices, as the ” Sextet from `Lucia,’ ” the ” Quartet from ` Rigoletto ‘ ; ” while many are spoken of by their Italian names. The ” Salve Dimore” belongs to this class, and, like the ” Jewel Song,” is so celebrated that many people who have not heard the music are still familiar with the name. The tenor who does not receive abundant applause after this aria may feel that he has lost his best chance in the opera.
After the solo Mephisto reenters with a jewel-casket under his arm. He places this where Marguerite will surely find it, and then the two retire. Now is an expectant moment, for the soprano holds the stage alone for some time, and has in this scene her finest solos. She comes in through the garden gate and walks very slowly, for she is thinking about the handsome stranger who spoke to her in the street. She tries, however, to forget the occurrence, and resolutely sits down to her spinning. As she spins she sings a ballad called ” The King of Thule.” It is a sad little song, with strange minor intervals that make one feel “teary ’round the heart.” Marguerite interrupts her ballad to soliloquize again, in pretty recitative tones, about that ” fine stranger,” but she soon recalls herself and resumes the song. At last she gives up trying to spin, and starts for the house; whereupon she sees Siebel’s flowers, which are admired, but dropped in amazement when her eyes rest upon the jewel-box. After some misgivings she opens it and discovers jewels so beautiful that from sheer joy and delight she starts to trilling like a bird. This trill is the opening of the great aria, which seems to thus poise for a moment and then fly away in the ascending scale which commences the brilliant theme. The ” Jewel Song ” is as difficult as it is beautiful, and the artist who renders it well deserves unstinted praise.
Before the song is ended, Martha, the matron in whose care Marguerite has been entrusted, comes into the garden, and soon is followed by Faust and Mephistopheles. Hers is a necessary but unimportant character, as she has no solo and is merely a foil for Mephistopheles. She is represented as a very susceptible widow, and he takes upon himself the uninviting task of making love to her in order that Faust and Marguerite may have a chance. The two couples walk back and forth in the garden, which is sup-posed to extend beyond the limits of the stage. The courting as done by Mephistopheles is highly absurd, and is, in fact, the only touch of humor in the opera.
But very different are the scenes between Faust and Marguerite. Every phrase is full of charming sincerity. But it is after the quartet, after the second exit and reappearance, that we hear their great love duet. The evening shadows have lengthened, and “Tardi si fa ” (” It groweth late “) are the first words of this superb composition, which is indeed like pure gold. It stands alone in musical literature as the ideal love music. The only work that is ever compared to it is Wagner’s duet in the ” Walktire.” Some writer has ventured the statement that in this ” Faust ” duo Gounod has ” actually discovered the intervals of the scale which express the love passion.” The idea is not a wild one nor a new one, for it is known that the Greeks held a similar be-lief, and even prohibited certain harmonies and intervals as being too sensuous. Be that as it may, there is a subtle charm about Gounod’s music that eludes description. When we hear that final ecstatic leap from C sharp to high A, a mystic hush and spell steals over us.
There is little more after the duo. Marguerite rushes into the house, and Faust is aroused by the unwelcome voice of Mephistopheles. The latter’s jesting tone is most irritating to the lover. But this dialog is soon interrupted by one of the loveliest scenes in the opera. Marguerite throws open the blinds of her window and looks into the garden, which she believes is now vacant. The moonlight falls upon her, and she suddenly begins singing. It is a burst of melody as spontaneous and free as the song of a nightingale. The song is not long, and soon the curtain descends ; but the picture leaves a lasting impression.
Act IV. comprises three scenes. The first one is short, and depicts Marguerite’s grief and remorse. Faust has forsaken her, and the faithful Siebel tries to comfort and console. This second solo of Siebel’s is a melody of noble simplicity. The beautiful cadence given to the twice-repeated name, ” Marguerita,” reveals a heart full of unselfish love.
The next scene represents a street in front of Marguerite’s house. There is general excitement and anticipation among the villagers, for to day the soldiers return from war. They presently enter, amid much rejoicing, and sing their great chorus, called the ” Faust March.” This march is so popular and well known that people who believe they have never heard a note of the opera will be surprised to find that they recognize this march. It is played by every military band in the country. After the chorus the soldiers disperse to their homes and friends. Valentine is greeted by Siebel, but the brother inquires about his sister, and hastens into the house.
The stage now is darkened, for the hour is late. Presently Faust and Mephisto appear. The latter has brought his guitar, and he assumes the privilege of singing a serenade to Marguerite, while Faust stands to one side in melancholy meditation. Mephisto’s song is more insulting than complimentary. As a musical expression of irony, sarcasm, and insolence, this composition is certainly a success. The last three notes of the first phrase are a veritable leer. This is the second important bass solo, and, when well given, is highly effective, as it admits of great variety of expression. But instead of bringing forth the object of the serenade, Marguerite’s brother appears at the door, and with drawn sword. He seeks out Faust and challenges him to a duel. The challenge is accepted, and they are soon fighting; but the result is inevitable, for Mephisto uses his demoniac power to protect Faust, and so Valentine is wounded. The noise of the scuffle has aroused the villagers, who hurry in with lanterns and find Valentine dying. Marguerite rushes forward and falls on her knees beside him, but Valentine motions her away. He rises up in his death agony and curses her in tones that are like balls of fire. The villagers look on with awe, while poor Marguerite is stunned by these terrible words from her dying brother. It is the most tragic moment of the opera. When Valentine expires, every one kneels as they sing a solemn prayer, and the curtain falls.
We have next the Church Scene, whose sublime music displays Gounod’s special forte. He is perhaps greater as a composer of ecclesiastical music than anything else. His genius finds most congenial soil in religious themes, and therefore is this church scene with its mighty choruses and organ interludes truly grand. We hear the organ tones even before the curtain rises, and when it does Marguerite is discovered kneeling on a prayer-chair, apart from the other worshipers. She tries to pray and find comfort in her despair, but an awful voice mocks her endeavors, and that voice is Mephistopheles, who comes to her now in his true character. He is near her, but she can not see him, while he terrifies and tortures her with fearful prophecies. Vainly and desperately she strives to follow the familiar service, but she can hear only the demon’s voice. It draws ever nearer, and its words increase her terror. At last with a cry of anguish Marguerite falls down unconscious. Mephistopheles stands over her, and his face beams with satanic glee.
True to Goethe’s story, Marguerite becomes insane from grief and kills her child. The last act finds her in prison. Once again she is clad in white. Her hair hangs loose upon her shoulders, and chains bind her wrists. She is sleeping on a straw pallet as the curtain rises, and Faust enters with his companion. They have come to release the prisoner. But when she is aroused and urged to flee she pays little heed to their request, for she does not recognize them. But the sound of Faust’s voice recalls to her that first meeting so long ago, when he said, ” My fair lady, may I walk with you ? ” She sings again the charming phrase as we heard it in the second act; but it is now rendered with a certain pathos and simplicity that bring tears to our eyes.
She presently perceives Mephistopheles, and the sight fills her with terror. She falls on her knees and invokes the angels of heaven to pardon and receive her soul. The fervor of this prayer knows no bounds. A veritable religious’ ecstasy throbs through the music. The theme is broad and free, and seems to burst asunder every bond. It suggests a glory and splendor that are celestial. Ever higher and grander it grows. Marguerite is now standing with upraised arms; and altho Faust and Mephisto join in the singing, our attention is entirely riveted by that white-robed supplicant. The peerless theme is repeated three times, and always higher than before. Those soprano tones finally reach an atmosphere so clear and rare that they seem to carry the soul of Marguerite with them. The last high B soars up to heaven like a disembodied spirit.
It matters not what occurs after this. We have a dim consciousness of Marguerite falling down, of some words of lament from Faust ; but for us the opera was ended with that last supernal note.