The Metropolitan Opera Guild

FAUST

Opera in Three Acts 
Music by Charles Gounod 
Text in French by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, from the play by Goethe 
World Premiere: Paris, Théâtre Lyrique, May 19, 1859 
U.S. Premiere: New York, Academy of Music, November 26, 1863 (in Italian) 
Metropolitan Opera Premiere: October 22, 1883 (in Italian) 

 

THE CHARACTERS 
 
Faust (tenor): An old philosopher, frustrated by his life of science. He enters into a pact with the Devil, who promises him youth and pleasure in exchange for his soul.
Méphistophélès (bass): The Devil; shrewd, conniving, and evil, he delights in destroying men.
Marguerite (soprano): A beautiful, innocent, and spiritual young woman. She falls in love with Faust, and is almost destroyed by him.
Siébel (mezzo-soprano): A simple and loyal young villager who has always loved Marguerite.
Valentin (baritone): Marguerite's brother, a quick-tempered soldier. He loves his sister and is killed while defending her honor.
Wagner (baritone): A student and friend of Valentin.
Martha Schwerlein (mezzo-soprano): Neighbor and companion to Marguerite.
 
SYNOPSIS 
 
PROLOGUE. Alone in his study, Dr. Faust laments that his lifelong search for knowledge has yielded only despair. Twice he raises a goblet of poison to his lips but falters when he hears the songs of merrymakers outside. Cursing his fellow men, the old philosopher invokes Satan. The devil Méphistophélès appears, and Faust tells him of his longing for youth and pleasure; Méphistophélès offers to fulfill these desires in exchange for Faust's soul. Faust hesitates until the devil conjures up a vision of a lovely maiden, Marguerite. Transformed into a handsome youth, Faust goes with Méphistophélès in search of Marguerite (duet: "A moi les plaisirs").
 
ACT I. At a fair, a young soldier, Valentin, asks his friend Siébel to protect his sister, Marguerite, when he leaves for the front ("Avant de quitter ces lieux"). A student, Wagner, starts a lively song but is interrupted by Méphisto-phélès, who delivers an impudent hymn in praise of greed ("Le veau d'or"). The devil amazes the crowd by causing new wine to flow from an old keg. When he makes a toast to Marguerite, Valentin draws his sword, but it shatters. Realizing the stranger is the devil, the other soldiers hold their swords like crosses before Méphistophélès (chorus: "De l'enfer"), who backs off. The soldiers leave, and Faust approaches Marguerite. She refuses to let him escort her home; Méphis-tophélès returns to lead the merrymakers in a waltz.
 
ACT II. Siébel visits Marguerite's garden to leave her a bouquet ("Faites-lui mes aveux"). He is followed by Faust and Méphistophélès, who goes in search of a more impressive gift; left alone, Faust hails Marguerite's simple home ("Salut! demeure"). The devil returns with a casket of jewels. When Marguerite arrives, she sits by her spinning wheel and sings a ballad ("Il était un roi de Thulé"), interrupting herself with reflections on the stranger at the fair. Discovering the flowers and jewelbox, she delightedly adorns herself ("Ah! je ris"). Méphistophélès diverts a nosy neighbor, Marthe, by flirting with her so Faust can make his conquest. As night falls, Marguerite confesses her love ("Il se fait tard!") but, overcome with maidenly scruples, persuades Faust to leave. When he is about to comply, the devil sends him back and laughs as Marguerite, who has reappeared at her window, yields to Faust's embrace.
 
ACT III. Marguerite seeks refuge in church, shadowed by Méphistophélès, who torments her with curses and threats of damnation. She collapses.

In a town square, Valentin and his comrades return from war, singing the glory of those slain in battle ("Gloire immortelle"). The soldier questions Siébel about Marguerite but receives only evasive replies; puzzled, he enters his house.

Faust, remorseful at having abandoned Marguerite, arrives with Méphistophélès, who serenades the girl with a suggestive ballad ("Vous qui faites l'endormie"). Valentin, stepping forth to defend his sister's honor, fights a duel with Faust, who, guided by Méphistophélès, runs him through. As the devil drags Faust away, Marguerite kneels by her dying brother, who curses her with his last breath.

 
EPILOGUE. Marguerite lies asleep in prison, condemned to death for the murder of her illegitimate child. Faust and Méphistophélès enter, bent on spiriting her away. As the devil keeps watch, Faust wakens Marguerite; at first the distracted girl is overjoyed to see him, but instead of fleeing with him she tarries to recall their past happiness. When Méphistophélès urges haste, Marguerite calls on the angels to save her (trio: "Anges purs, anges radieux!"). As she dies, the devil pronounces her condemned, but angel choirs proclaim her salvation.
 
OPERA BACKGROUND 

 

The Faust Legend 
Gounod's Faust is but one incarnation of a very old character. There was an actual man named Faust, who lived sometime around the turn of the 16th century. He was a traveling German fortune-teller and magician, but reportedly also a schoolteacher who taught in many German university cities. Some sources paint him as an immoral rogue; others report that he led a respectable life after he came under the aegis of Cologne's archbishop in 1532.
 
The personage named Dr. Faust (Faustus in Latin) first appeared in print in 1587, in an anonymous work titled Historia von Dr. Johann Fausten. This printing gathered together various oral versions that were known in the German region. The essential story, as it reads in the Historia, deals with a Johann Faustus who lived in Weimar, Germany. At an early age he demonstrated scholarly aptitude, and studied the Bible, medicine, math, astrology, sorcery, prophesy, and witchcraft.
 
Through his studies, he developed a desire to communicate with the Devil, so he went to the woods near Wittenberg and summoned him. The Devil and Dr. Faustus made a pact. Under the terms of this agreement, the Devil would serve Dr. Faustus as long as the latter lived, providing him with whatever information he might ask for, and would never lie to Dr. Faustus. In return, Dr. Faustus would renounce his Christian faith and surrender his body and soul after 24 years, signing the pact in his own blood.
 
Dr. Faustus enjoyed a life of unlimited luxury and wealth. His every wish could be granted, and he savored elegant clothing, exotic food, beautiful women (including Helen of Troy, the legendary most beautiful woman in the world). The Devil helped him travel from the bowels of the earth to the distant stars, and his extensive knowledge and accurate prophesies won him worldly renown. However, at the end of the 24-year period, he could not avoid his end of the contract. He died a horrific death, inspiring the students who found his broken body to always follow God and reject the Devil.
 
Numerous tales about fantastic events during Faust's lifetime proliferated, and probably some involving the powers of pseudoscientists and magicians were incorporated into the body of Faust lore. In these stories, Faust performed strange and magnificent deeds; he once made a springtime orchard appear in the middle of winter, and on another occasion created bountiful grape vines that looked so real that his guests attempted to cut off some grapes, but when the illusion evaporated, they found they were holding each others' noses. These fanciful stories were taken seriously by Phillip Melanchthon and Martin Luther, German leaders of the Reformation.
 
The Historia was translated to English verse in 1587, and French and English prose versions appeared in 1592. Since then, the story has been re-written several times, both as literary and as musical creations. Among the more famous versions are:
 
Christopher Marlowe's The Tragicall History of Dr. Faustus (1604)
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust: Eine Tragödie (first part, 1808; second part 1833)
Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus (1950)
Hector Berlioz' The Damnation of Faust (opera, 1846)
Charles Gounod's Faust (opera, 1859)
Franz Liszt' A Faust Symphony (symphony, 1854)