Online opera guide and synopsis to Charles Gounod’s FAUST
Gounod’s Faust is one of the great operas. It is a masterpiece with many gripping scenes that have become famous. The role of Margeritue is one of the most beautiful and demanding roles in opera literature.
♪ Act I (Study scene)
♪ Act II (Kirmesse scene)
♪ Act III (Garden scene, love scene)
♪ Act IV (Spinning wheel scene, Church scene, duel scene)
♪ Act V (Walpurgis night, dungeon scene)
♪ Faites-lui mes aveux (Flower aria)
♪ Ah! je ris de me voir (Jewel song)
♪ Déposons les armes (Soldier choir)
♪ À l’étude mon maitre (Final terzetto)
Jules Barbier, Michel Carré, based on Goethe's novel of the same name.
The main roles
Faust, a scholar (tenor) - Mefisto, devil (bass) - Margarethe, a young woman (soprano) - Valentin, brother of Margarethe (baritone) - Siebel, a young man (soprano) - Marthe, neighbor of Margarethe (mezzo-soprano).
WARNER BROTHERS with Cheryl Studer, Richard Leech, Thomas Hampson and José van Dam conducted by Michel Plasson and the Orchestra and Choir of the Capitole of Toulouse and the Choir of the French Army.
The topic of Dr. Faustus
The legend of Dr. Faust dates back to the Middle Ages and was set into literature by various writers and set to music by many composers. Just think of Berlioz’s symphonic poem or Boito’s opera Mefistofele. The most famous literary model is that of Goethe. He completed his Faust 50 years before the premiere of Gounod’s work.
Between french grand opéra and German philosophical depth
Barbier, one of the two librettists of Gounod’s Faust, had already offered his libretto to Meyerbeer before. But Meyerbeer declined on the grounds that Faust was a sanctuary that should not be desecrated with profane music.
The plot of Gounod’s Faust is roughly comparable to that of Goethe, but without having the philosophical and scientific depth of the literary model, which often brought the work the reproach of superficiality. Gounod’s Faust was written in the decades of pleasure-seeking Paris before the Franco-German war. Gounod’s Faust is not a man who strives for world understanding. On Mephisto’s question what he strives for, he mentions the pleasures of love. (“A moi les plaisirs, Les jeunes maîtresses!”). For Gounod, Margarete’s tragedy was the more important story and he placed it at the centre of his work. Ultimately, Faust is a beautiful French opera, with the intention not to carry too much ballast of the literary model. In the German opera business this opera is often called “Margarethe” to distinguish it from Goethe’s Faust.
The reception of the oeuvre
The rehearsals for the premiere in 1859 were nerve-racking. Gounod suffered under the dictatorial theatre director Cavalho, who at the same time was the piece’s director. Moreover his wife sang the leading female role. As if that weren’t enough, he had to constantly cut music, even on the day of the dress rehearsal, the opera was still too long at 4 hours. An observer who later described these scenes was Jules Massenet, who witnessed this very closely as the timpanist of the orchestra. The opera was only moderately successful at first, but found many compliments from the critics. The success began in the following years in Germany. After a reworking for the Grand opéra the world success began. In the years between the world wars the opera even became the most performed opera. After the war it fell out of the repertoire in many places and it took several decades until it was performed more frequently again.
So there are two versions of Faust. The original version was written for the Théatre lyrique and the modern version was adapted by Gounod 10 years later for the Grand opéra. In addition to expanding the ballet scenes, this included changing the spoken recitatives into sung and accompanied recitatives.
Nevertheless, Faust has not become a classical opera of the “grand opéra”. Fortunately, Gounod could do without the usual oversized choir scenes, thunderstorm music and complicated world-political conflicts.
FAUST ACT I
In the first part of the overture, a mysterious and gloomy mood prevails. In the second part of the overture, Gounod presents us with two magnificent themes from the opera (one of which we find in Valentin’s aria in Act 2) with splendid orchestration.
Ouvertüre – Binder / Wiener Philharmoniker
Synopsis: Faust is sitting in the study. He has countless books and atlases in front of him. Rien! He is desperate, he acquired a lot of knowledge and yet has attained little wisdom. He is tired of the constant search for meaning in life. The poison cup is already ready. When he leads it to his mouth, he hears the singing of young women and peasants.
Gounod shortens the Goethe’s story. With a grandiose “Rien” he summarizes the first section of “Faus” in a single word (Mefistos bet with God).
Rien! En vain j’interroge, en mon ardente veille – Kraus
Synopsis: The singing distracts him. He praises God. But soon he has the poison cup in his hand again. Love, happiness and fame have left him. He would make one last attempt, even with Satan’s help. He actually appears in the person of Mefisto. He asks Faust why he called him. Faust dismisses him. Mefisto insists: is it gold or glory that he wants? Then Faust explains: “Love is what he misses”. Mefisto could grant him this wish. When Faust asks him what he wants for it, Mefisto replies, that the worldly life will belong to Faust, but his soul will belongs to him in the hereafter.
In the next scene we hear the appearance of Mefisto, who suddenly stands with a bang in front of the bewildered Faust and asks him what he is striving for.
Me voici! D’où vient ta surprise? – Björling / Siepi
Mefistofele’s vision of Marguerite
Synopsis: Mefisto creates a vision of Marguerite on the spinning wheel. Faust is spellbound and enchanted. He quickly signs Mefisto’s paper and receives a rejuvenating potion in return, which he drinks greedily. Faust triumphanthly praises his youth.
A beautiful piece by Gounod with a beautiful compositional effect: as Faust receives Gretchen’s vision, the jubilant refrain (“à moi les plaisirs”) is repeated several times, half a tone higher each time, resulting in an ecstatic pull (from 5 :00).
A moi tes désirs, A moi ton ivresse, A moi tes plaisirs – Leech / van Dam
Another interpretation with Björling and Siepi. It captivates with fire and ecstasy. The recording suffers somewhat from the poor quality of a live recording.
O merveille … a moi les plaisirs, Les jeunes maîtresses! (!)
FAUST ACT II
Valentin has to go to war
Synopsis: A fair in town. Valentin has to go to war. He drinks and looks thoughtfully at an amulet of his sister Marguerite that she gave him as talisman. Siebel and Wagner see him and ask why he is depressed. Valentin answers that he must leave Margarete unprotected. Siebel offers to watch for her. Valentin thanks him, now he can join the army calmly.
The aria of Valentin became one of the most popular pieces for baritones and is often sung in recitals. This aria was not yet included in the first version of the opera. It was only during a London production in 1865, when a baritone complained, that Valentin had no beautiful aria that Gounod added this piece. He took a theme from the overture and turned it into this beautiful aria.
This aria was one of Hvorostovsky’s battle horses. He sings the ending effectively with a long and highly sung final note.
Avant de quitter ces lieux – Hvorostovsky
Robert Merrill had an lush, colorful voice which comes into its own wonderfully in this piece.
Oh sainte médaille … Avant de quitter ces lieux – Merrill
Mefistofeles great appearance – le veau d’or, the golden calf
Synopsis: Wagner’s trying to cheer him up. Mefisto appears. He joins the three friends and claims that gold rules the world.
This piece is an element of the Opera Comique. When you look at Goethe’s Faust, it seems strange that the devil in this opera has to sing a Buffo aria. Perhaps this trivialisation is one of the reasons why this opera has still not been as successful in German-speaking countries as in English-speaking countries.
The music begins with an orchestra fortissimo and the triumphant appearance of Mefisto. His description of the people dancing around the golden calf must be sung with a sarcastic tone. The piece is short and yet demanding for the singer, who has to carry the nuances of this aria over the “noise” of the orchestra.
We hear a bombastic production from the Vienna State Opera. Ruggiero Raimondi was an excellent, impressive performer, equipped with an impressive, powerful sound organ.
Le veau d’or est toujours debout! – Raimondi
Synopsis: When Wagner wants to greet him, he looks at his palm lines and prophesies that he will die in the next attack, and to Siebel, that every flower that he will touch from now on will wither. Then he praises Marguerite’s beauty with mocking words. When Valentin hears her name, he attacks Mefisto with his sword to punish him. His sword bounces off, a magical force protects Mefisto and the sword breaks. The Devil! As the only possible defense, Valentin and his friends form a cross with their swords. Mefisto retreats.
A beautiful choral-like piece completes this scene effectively.
Choir of the swords – Blanc / Autron / Bertan
Faust sees Marguerite
Synopsis: The three friends leave the square. Faust appears and reminds Mefisto of his promise. He lets women appear and asks Faust to make his choice, but Faust insists on the person he has seen, Marguerite. She soon shows up accompanied by Siebel. Mefisto chases him away and Faust speaks to Marguerite. But she rejects him. Faust is not discouraged, he loves her even more. The square fills with people again.
The music of this scene has become known under the name “Faust-Walz”.
Ainsi que la brise légère – Met Opera
FAUST ACT III
The famous third act
The third act is the most important act of this opera. It usually lasts about an hour and is a sequence of magnificent scenes.
Synopsis: Siebel is in the garden near Marguerite’s house. He is in love with her and wants to pick flowers. But hardly in the hand they wither. When he puts his hand in the holy water pot he has broken the spell and the flowers no longer wither. He puts a bouquet in front of Margaretes door.
Siébel is a so-called trouser roll and is sung by a woman. The flower aria is one of the many pieces in this opera that has become popular. The American Mezzo Joyce di Donato sings a great role portrait in the following interpretation.
Faites-lui mes aveux – Di Donato
Faust great Aria « Salut! demeure chaste et pure »
Synopsis: Faust appears in the garden accompanied by Mefisto. Mefisto leaves to procure a gift for Marguerite. Faust is alone and in anticipation of the reunion with her.
A feature of this famous aria is that the tenor is accompanied by a solo violin that plays around the tenor’s voice throughout the piece. Berlioz said that this trick of Gounod “is much more of a pity than a help to the whole, and I think the singer Duprez was right, who one day, when an instrument solo in the orchestra accompanied him during a romance, said: “This devil’s instrument with its runs and variations irritates me like a fly that whirrs around my head and wants to sit on my nose. »
Conde countered that Gounod pronounces with the violin what the words could only halfway say (” ce que les mots ne disent qu’à demi “).
Fausts’ words are spiritual and expressive. Words like “innocente et divine ” or “que de richesse (“How rich”) give the singer the opportunity to show the subtlety and richness of his voice. The intensity increases steadily up to the climax of the aria with the spectacular high C, which should be sung tastefully and must under no circumstances be coarse and craving for recognition, which would destroy the mood of this piece. The piece ends with a beautiful adagio of the solo violin.
We hear this aria in two recordings.
Maybe Björling’s interpretation is unbeatable. He has recorded this aria repeatedly. In this recording we see him in a television production. We notice an uncertain look at the beginning, but then Björling beguiles the listener from the first second on. He turns into a tender, romantic lover. His singing and playing is of great naturalness, as is the high C. This performance together with Enrico Caruso’si s and was the blueprint for all tenors after them.
Salut, demeure chaste et pure – Björling
Caruso, who had a rather baritonal voice, showed trouble with high notes at the beginning of his career. “When he made his first recordings, this problem was at any rate solved, as the splendid recording of Salut, demeure chaste et pure, which he sang in February 1906 and in which the fusion of the lyrical with the heroic can be heard very beautifully, shows: developed from a tender mezza voce, the voice blossoms more and more and unfolds on a splendid high C, which makes no signs of a troublesome plague. ” (Fischer, great voices)
Salut, demeure chaste et pure – Caruso
Marguerite’s emotional roller coaster
Synopsis: Mefisto is back, carrying a box of jewellery under his arm. He puts it next to Siébel’s bouquet and pushes it away. Faust now feels guilty about Marguerite’s chastity, but Mefisto banishes this thoughts. Faust moves away from the house and observes it from a listening distance. Marguerite appears in a thoughtful mood, remembering her late mother and sister. She sits at the spinning wheel and sings the ballad of the King of Thule. She remembers the young man she had seen on the market square. Who might he have been? She liked him, but she was too shy to talk to him.
The ninth scene of the third act is made of two highlights of the opera. Marguerite first sings the ballad of the King of Thule and then the famous jewel aria.
In the aria ” il était un roi de Thulé ” Gounod paraphrases the verses from Goethe’s Faust. Thule is an island in the Arctic Sea, perhaps Iceland, where a woman sings melancholically about grief, death and eternal love. Marguerite has lost her mother and her little sister. Now her brother is a soldier, whom she may never see again. She feels lonely.
Callas has wonderfully captured the melancholy of the song. She can impressively sing the different mood changes Margarete goes through in this aria.
Il était un roi de Thulé – Callas
Marguerite sees the jewelry – the famous « jewel song »
Synopsis: Marguerite sees Siébel’s bouquet and takes it in her hands. When she sees the jewellery box, she drops the simple bouquet. Fascinated, she tries on the jewellery. Now she feels like a princess. If only the stranger were with her now and could see her.
Most of this opera is written for a lirico-spinto soprano, a dramatic soprano that can faithfully represent the entire spectre of feelings: She must depict the innocence of the young woman, then the lover of Faust, the faithful churchgoer, then the tragically abandoned and finally the insane, imprisoned. In this aria, the music of the coquettish young woman, spiked with ornamentation, is added. So this piece requires the voice of a lyrical coloratura soprano.
This wide range of requirements makes Marguerite one of the most demanding roles in opera literature and is therefore difficult to fill. The famous British singer critic John Stean wrote in 1971 that in the history documented by records only four female singers could cover this entire vocal spectrum: Lili Lehmann, Rosa Ponselle, Maria Callas and Montserrat Caballé. There are recordings of this opera by two of these singers.
We hear the interpretation in 2 recordings. First Angela Gheorghiu and then the quoted Maria Callas.
With great playfulness and beautiful voice we first hear Angela Gheorghiu.
Ah! je ris de me voir – Gheorghiu
Next is Maria Callas. It is fantastic what vocal nuances she can get out of the aria. “If ever the unity of diction and declamation, fine word nuances and eloquence of the performance demanded by Gounod was achieved again after the war, then it was in this performance” (Kesting).
Ah! Je ris de me voir – Callas
Mefisto’s trick and the great quartet
Synopsis : Her neighbour Marthe appears and admires Marguerite adorned with jewels. As they chat, Faust and Mefisto appear. To lure Marte away from Marguerite, Mefisto invents the story that he comes to tell her that her husband has died. Soon he courts her, because she needs a new one now. Marthe feels flattered and takes him for a walk. Faust and Margarete are now alone. Margarete tells of herself that she is all alone. Mother and sister have died and her brother is at war.
This scene develops into a beautiful quartet with a rich orchestral accompaniment.
Prenez mon bras un moment – Gedda / de los Angeles / Christof / Michel
The great love duet of Faust and Marguerite
Synopsis : Mefisto leaves Marthe and conjures up a romantic atmosphere for the two lovers.
Berlioz was very positive about Gounod’s Faust. He specifically mentioned this scene: “I wouldn’t know what’s more beautiful, the sweet harmony of the vocals or the veiled orchestration of the accompaniment. This poetic twilight, this musical moonlight, which caresses the listener, enchants and enchants him little by little, and is filled with an excitement that increases until the very end, is admirable. And this magnificent scene is crowned by Margarethe’s monologue at the window. The girl’s passion breaks out here at the end with impetuous power and gripping eloquence. And this, I believe, is the masterpiece of the score.”
Il était temps! .. O nuit d’amour – Gedda / de los Angeles
We hear Jussi Björling in this scene with a beautiful voice and tone.
Il était temps! .. O nuit d’amour – Björling / Kirsten
FAUST ACT IV
Synopsis: Months later. Marguerite is expecting a child. Faust has left her. She is exposed to the mockery of the villagers. She longs for him back, but inside she knows that he will not return to her.
We hear this elegy of Marguerite accompanied by beautiful floating and buzzing string sounds.
Ils ne sont plus là!… Il ne revient pas! – Benackova
Synopsis: Siebel appears. He confesses his love and wants to avenge her. She thanks him, but she has not yet given up hope that he will come back. She goes to the church to pray for his return.
This grateful, comforting song is a beautiful resting place of the opera.
Versez votre chagrin – Mentzer / Fassbänder
The Demonic Church Scene
Synopsis: In the divine service she repeatedly hears Mefisto’s voice over the choirs, and she faints.
Gounod had a close relationship with the church. As a young man he played with the idea of becoming a priest for a long time. He attended the theological seminary and wore a priest’s robe. Before that, he had been organist and choirmaster of a church for six years. Gounod was torn between worldliness and church for a long time and was never able to solve this balancing act properly. This led to a nervous crisis during the composition of Faust and he had to be hospitalized for a short time.
The church scene with the devil is proverbially devilish and incredibly dramatic in its layout and music. We listen to a recording with the excellent interpreters Jose van Dam and Cheryl Studer.
Seigneur, daignez permettre à votre humble servante – Studer / van Dam
Synopsis: War is over.
This choir piece with ballet is one of the most famous pieces of this opera, the so-called soldier choir.
Déposons les armes – Plasson
Mephisto’s mocking serenade
Synopsis: Valentine returns to the village. He has heard of his sister’s disgrace and wants to confront her. Faust too has gone to Marguerite’s house because he is tormented by his guilty conscience. Mefisto accompanies him and mockingly sings a serenade for Margerete, which he calls Catherine.
This aria of the devil was to be sung in the French style, not diabolically ugly, but elegantly amused. The laughs of this aria have become operatic history.
Vous qui faites l’endormie – Furlanetto
It is worth taking a look at a legendary recording of Fyodor Shalyapin not only for those interested in opera history . This Russian bass, born in 1873 near the Tartar city of Kazan, was also called the greatest bass in history. Whether this is true is difficult to judge. In any case, he was the most influential. Many of the role portraits are still influenced by him today. Regarding Shaljapin’s Mefisto, Fischer (Great Voices) wrote: “In the Serenade, every note seems to come from a different hole, and the variations of the devilish laughter alone could serve as teaching material for generations.” In fact, the recording is worth listening even only because of the various diabolical laughs.
Vous qui faites l’endormie – Schaljapin
The deadly duel
Synopsis: Valentin joins the two. He wants satisfaction and challenges Faust to a duel. He curses the medallion that protected him during the war and throws it away. He faces Faust with the sword. When the two fight, Valentin dies by a sneaky blow from Mefisto. People gather in the village. Margarete also runs over.
Par ici, mes amis! on se bat dans la rue! – Araiza / Raimondi / Görngross
Synopsis : When Valentin dies, he curses his sister and promises her a life of disgrace until her death.
Ecoute moi bien …Ce qui doit arriver arrive à l’heure dite! – Merrill
FAUST ACT V
Mefisto leads Faust to Walpurgis Night
Synopsis: Mefisto led Faust into the mountains. With a wild witch orgy he wants to distract the unfortunate from his grief.
Watch a classical ballet with the beautiful music of Walpurgis Night in a Russian production.
Walpurgis night- Maximova/Yagoudin/Vlasov
The Second Great Love Duet of Faust and Marguerite
Synopsis: Mefisto Faust and Mefisto visit Marguerite in the dungeon. In her grief she killed her child. in mental derangement she sits in a cell. When she hears Faust’s voice, she wakes up again. Faust swears his love to her.
Ah! c’est la voix du bien aimé!… Oui, c’est toi que j’aime – Studer / Leech
The grandiose trio of the dungeon scene
Synopsis : Faust wants to escape with her. Time is pressing, for the execution takes place at sunrise. But Marguerite doesn’t hear him any more, she has once again gone mad. When Mefisto appears, she recognizes her demon in him. She sends them away and dies. Mefisto calls “judged” but heavenly choirs sound and call: “Saved”. Mefisto is judged by the Archangel.
This trio is one of the most beautiful parts of the opera. If one takes comparable scenes from other works as benchmark (e.g. the dungeon scene of the Trovatore or works of the grand opéra), the brevity of this passage is astonishing. Gounod composes this passage compactly and dramatically. The chorus “Anges pures, anges radieux” (“pure radiant angels, carry my soul to heaven above”) is repeated several times, always half a tone higher, which triggers an incredibly dramatic effect.
In the following great apotheosis with choir the archangel judges the devil.
We hear this final scene in 3 interpretations.
We begin with the recording with Jonas Kaufmann from the Metropolitan Opera.
À l’étude mon maitre – Kaufmann / Poplavskaya / Pape
For lovers of historical recordings: Nellie Melba is one of the legends of the golden era. Her interpretation in this trio of 1910 is “triumphal, her voice literally shouts into the cruelly exposed heights of the trio. The portamento legato of the singing is wonderful.”(Kesting)
À l’étude mon maitre … Christ est ressuscité – Melba / Mc Cormack
The interpretation of this trio proves how dramatic this part of the opera, and that it is one of the most dramatic parts in operatic history. The performance of the three singers is formidable and the end B of tenor and soprano is grandiose.
A l’étude mon maître – Björling / Moore / Dickson
Recording recommendation of the opera FAUST
WARNER BROTHERS with Cheryll Studer, Richard Leech, Thomas Hampson and José van Dam under the direction of Michel Plassson and the orchestra and choeur du capitole de Toulouse et le choeur de l’armée francaise.
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on FAUST by Charles Gounod.