“Faust,” a grand opera in five acts, with words by Barbier and Carré after Goethe’s poem and music by Charles Gounod, was first produced at the Théâtre Lyrique, Paris, March 19, 1859.
Marguerite Siebel Dr. Faust Valentine Mephistopheles Martha Wagner Students, soldiers, villagers, sorcerers.
This opera of Gounod follows, with reasonable fidelity, the Faust-Marguerite episode in the Goethe drama. Dr. Faust, the disillusioned old student, who has lived many years in the pursuit of knowledge, is introduced to us as baffled in his metaphysical investigation, weary of life, and longing to be released from it. He cries Naught do I see! Naught do I know! Naught! Naught!
He mixes a draught of poison and is about to raise it to his lips, when he hears a company of laborers singing as they go to the fields Praise ye the Lord! Bless ye our God! The world is beautiful.
“But this God, what can he do for me?” shrieks the unhappy Faust and he falls back into his chair cursing wildly. With this invitation, Mephistopheles, the fiend, makes a spectacular appearance, clothed as a gay cavalier with a plume in his hat and a bright cloak over his shoulder. He offers to give Faust youth in exchange for his soul. The student has known life only in theory and the appeal is too strong to be overcome, while a vision of Marguerite at her spinning-wheel nerves his hesitating hand to sign the contract.
He sees the world in its new guise at Easter-tide and at the kermess or village fair he meets Marguerite for the first time, as she is returning from church. She is a pure and innocent girl, whose brother, Valentine, a soldier, has departed for the wars, leaving her in the care of the youth Siebel and of old dame Martha. Mephistopheles encounters Valentine and Siebel at the fair and, confessing that he is a sorcerer, reads their hands. To Siebel he says, “Whatever flowers you would gather shall wither in your grasp. No more bouquets for Marguerite.” To Valentine he says, “Take care, my brave fellow; some one I know is destined to kill you”
Into Marguerite’s garden, Siebel comes and leaves a nosegay at her window but Mephistopheles soon appears and places there a casket of jewels to outshine it. The. girl returns from church and sings at her spinning-wheel the quaint old folk-song “There was a king in Thule,” while, in reality, she is dreaming of the handsome Faust, whose advances she rebuffed in the market-place. Suddenly she sees the jewels, and is delighted with them. Faust appears and the girl confides to him her loneliness, he assuring her eloquently of his love and devotion. A strange doubt fills her soul, however, but Faust dispels it with his endearments. To prove his love, she consults a daisy, saying as she pulls out the petals one by one, “He loves me; he loves me not.” The flower says “yes” and Faust adds his rapturous avowal to its answer.
She falls a victim to Faust and, deserted, she cringes under the scorn of the world. When Valentine returns, he challenges his sister’s betrayer and is slain, Mephistopheles guiding the sword in Faust’s unwilling hand. The girl finds herself alone and forsaken, her former associates taunting her and even the church failing to console her, for Mephistopheles follows to mock her even at the altar. Finally, her grief drives her mad and she kills her child. The prison doors close on her and she waits for the executioner’s axe.
Faust, viewing with Mephistopheles the glory of earth and heaven, is drawn from a vision of Helen’s triumphant beauty to contemplate the anguished features of Marguerite in the dress of the condemned. Aided by Mephistopheles, he seeks her in prison and urges her to fly with him, but her chastened soul relies now upon heaven alone and she refuses to submit to the entreaties of the bitterly contrite Faust. At dawn, as the bells toll for her execution, she dies and her soul is carried to heaven by angels, before whose holiness Mephistopheles is powerless. Faust follows her apotheosis with his eyes and sinks to his knees in prayer.
Gounod’s “Faust” has had an universal success. It and his “Romeo and Juliet” are counted his masterpieces. The former has been performed more than a thousand times in Paris alone.
Among the numbers are the drinking song of Mephistopheles, “Veau d’or” (“Calf of Gold”) ; the entire garden scene, which includes Siebel’s “Flower Song,” Faust’s greeting of Marguerite’s dwelling, “Salut ! demeure chaste et pure” (“Hail, thou dwelling pure and holy”) ; the “King of Thule” ballad and the “Jewel Song” sung by Marguerite and the duets of Faust and Marguerite. “Laisse-moi, laisse-moi contempler ton visage” (“Let me gaze”) and “O nuit d’amour” (“O Night of Love”). Prominent in the later acts are the ” Soldiers’ Chorus,” the ballet music and the trio for Marguerite, Faust and Mephistopheles with which the opera closes.