— A Synopsis of the Plot —
The opera premiered March 19, 1859, Théâtre Lyrique, Paris, France
It is loosely based on the first part of the three-part tragedy, “Faust”
by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
The opera is set in 16th century Germany.
Charles François Gounod(1818-1893)Act One
Faust has spent a lifetime in the study of philosophy. Disillusioned, he resolves to poison himself. He is interrupted twice by the sounds of young men and women engaged in the delights of the young, and is painfully reminded of his lost youth. In exasperation, he curses God and calls on the devil. Méphistophélès, dressed as a gentleman, obligingly appears. He offers Faust riches, power, and glory but Faust wants only youth and women. Méphistophélès agrees, asking Faust to sign a pact: on earth Faust will be master, but in the world below roles will be reversed. When Faust hesitates, Méphistophélès conjures up a vision of Marguerite. Faust signs the contract. His cup of poison is transformed into a magical potion which renders him young again. The two depart for adventure.
A fair is in town and the citizens are on holiday. Valentin who is on the verge of setting off to war with some of the men of the town, is concerned about leaving his sister,Marguerite, unprotected. Wagner, a student and fellow soldier, starts a song to cheer up the crowd, but is interrupted by Méphistophélès, who sings a wilder one. Méphistophélès tells fortunes: Wagner, it seems, will be killed in his first battle, any flowers that Siebel picks will wither, and Valentin will meet his death at the hands of someone nearby. Disgusted by the wine on offer, Méphistophélès conjures up a better vintage to toast Marguerite. His magical powers set the townsfolk on edge and Valentin, recognizing him for who he really is, draws his sword and attempts to attack the demon, but his sword shatters. The soldiers cross themselves, convinced that they are in the presence of the devil. They raise the cross-shaped hilts of their swords twords Méphistophélès, who, of necessity, shrinks away from the symbol of his nemesis. The townsfolk move off. Undaunted,Mephistopheles will have the last laugh, and he leads Faust to a place where couples are dancing. Faust sees Marguerite. Emma Calvé as Marguerite.(1858-1942)He offers her his arm. She refuses, but so charmingly that he is left more entranced than before. Méphistophélès causes the dancers into a frenzy as Faust pursues Marguerite.
Siebel is gathering flowers for Marguerite and, as prophesied, they wither. Holy water from a roadside shrine, however, seems to restore them. Méphistophélès and Faust have been watching. Méphistophélès leaves Faust alone. The atmosphere of innocence surrounding Marguerite’s home moves him. He is consumed with an unyielding love for her. The devil returns with a jewel case containing an array of dazzling jewels which he leaves as a gift for Marguerite. They go off to wait at a distance. Unable to rid this handsome young man from her mind, Marguerite returns home singing a folk song, then suddenly sees the jewels left for her by Mephistopheles. When she tries them on, she sees herself a different woman in the mirror. She is further confused by the encouragement of her neighbor, Marthe, who is also beguiled by the gems. Faust and Méphistophélès enter. Méphistophélès flirts with Marthe, leaving the garden clear for Faust to seduce Marguerite. She begins to weaken. After the first kiss, she panics and rushes into the house. Méphistophélès summons up all the intoxicating odors from the night flowers. The sweet fragrance has the desired effect on Marguerite, who confesses to the night that she loves Faust. Taking his cue, Faust calls out her name. Méphistophélès now has a grip on both their souls.
Polish opera singer Edouard de Reszke (1853-1917) as Méphistophélès in Gounod’s “Faust”Act Four
Seduced and abandoned, shunned by the townsfolk, Margueritehas given birth to Faust’s child. Siébel promises to care for her. Marguerite, still in love with Faust, prays for him and their child.
Distraught, she goes to church to pray for forgiveness. She hears the voice of Méphistophélès telling her that she is damned, and, as a chorus of demons calls her name, Marguerite collapses in terror.
The soldiers return with Valentin. Siébel tries to stop him entering the house. Suspecting the worst, Valentin pushes him aside and goes to see for himself. It is now dark and Méphistophélès serenades Marguerite on behalf of Faust. Valentin races out of the house and demands satisfaction from his sister’s seducer. He and Faust fight and, with a little help from Mephistopheles, Valentin is fatally wounded. Marguerite watches her brother die and hears him curse her with his dying breath. Marguerite is driven to distraction.
Her reason lost, Marguerite kills her infant child, whereupon she is thrown into prison. Assisted unwillingly by Méphistophélès, Faust has broken into her prison cell to save her. She seems to recognize him and reminisces about the first time they met. Faust, realizing he has ruined her, is overwhelmed with pity. Marguerite panics at the sight of the devil, she sees the blood on Faust’s hands and, with a frantic appeal to Heaven, she dies. Méphistophélès cries that she is damned, but angelic voices proclaim that she is saved. Her soul ascends toward Heaven welcomed by flights of angels.
The vision of Margeurite in Faust's study in Act 1 of Gounod's opera Faust as performed at Covent Garden in 1864. Méphistophélès was played by Jean-Baptiste Faure, and Faust by Giovanni Mario. From a lithograph on contemporary sheet music cover.
(Oh, night of love! Oh, starlit sky!). The music fairly enmeshes the listener in its enchanting measures.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
During the ten years that elapsed between the productions at the Théâtre Lyrique and the Grand Opéra, "Faust" had only thirty-seven performances. Within eight years (1887) after it was introduced to the Grand Opera, it had 1000 performances there. From 1901-1910 it was given nearly 3000 times in Germany alone. After the score had been declined by several publishers, it was brought out by Choudens, who paid Gounod 10,000 francs ($2000) for it, and made a fortune out of the venture. For the English rights the composer is said to have received only 40 pounds ($200) and then only upon the insistence of Chorley, the author of the English version.