Opera For Beginners

Opera Profile: Gounod’s Iconic ‘Faust’

Premiering at the Theatre Lyrique of Paris on March 19, 1859, “Faust” is adapted from the poem by Goethe, which follows Dr. Faust and his ordeals after entering into a contract with a minion of the devil, Mephistopheles.

Despite a lukewarm opening, the opera made a number of revisions before a revival 10 years later, and would be frequently performed by the Paris Opera.

It has held the stage ever since and is undeniably one of the most popular operas in the repertoire.

Short Plot Summary

In his study, the philosopher Faust languishes over his advancing age, resolving to take poison and end his life. His attempts are halted each time he hears a choir; forsaking heavenly authority, he turns to the Devil for guidance when Mephistopheles appears. Faust desires the return of his youth, which Mephistopheles assures him he can provide in exchange for his soul, further tempting Faust with the image of the beautiful village girl Marguerite. Faust and Mephistopheles enter into their bargain and, after drinking from his poisoned cup, Faust transforms into a young man once more. At a village fair in Leipzig, the young soldier Valentine sings with a crowd, hoping that his sister Marguerite will be safe while he is serving in the military. Mephistopheles joins the crowd, singing the profane song of the Golden Calf in praise of material riches. When he raises a mocking toast to Marguerite, Valentine unsheathes his sword and swings it at the demon, only to have it break against the air. Despite this, Valentine and the villagers repel Mephistopheles when they see him recoil at the shape of the cross the broken sword now makes. Meanwhile, the young Faust finds his way to Marguerite, and offers to escort her to the church, but she politely declines. Later, in her garden, Marguerite spins at her wheel before noticing a box of jewels left by Faust. She laughs and indulges in their beauty before being joined by her neighbor Marthe, followed by Faust and Mephistopheles. They sing of Marguerite’s splendor before the demon takes Marthe elsewhere so Faust and Marguerite can be alone. The lovers kiss, and though Faust leaves, he speeds back inside when he hears her singing of her longing for his return. Outside, Mephistopheles laughs derisively.

Sometime later, Marguerite is now pregnant with Faust’s child. Valentine returns from the military, and is home to hear the mocking serenade Faust and Mephistopheles use to beckon his sister. Valentine challenges Faust to a duel but is killed due to Faust’s sword being guided by the demon. Wracked with guild over her actions, Marguerite prays at the church for forgiveness; Mephistopheles arrives first, drowning out her prayers, and causes her to faint. Time passes, and Mephistopheles brings Faust to Hartz Mountain on Walpurgis Night, tempting him with a number of women who pull Faust into their lustful dance. Faust soon encounters a vision of  Marguerite, having killed their child she is sentenced to execution. When he uses Mephistopheles’ aid to arrive before her in prison, Faust is rejected by Marguerite, who puts her faith in God and is able to recognize the demon beside him. She falls dead, but her soul is taken up to heaven; desiring to join her, Faust begins to pray before his soul is also granted mercy, now free from the clutches of Mephistopheles.

Famous Musical Numbers

The opera is rife with famed musical setpieces, most notably Faust’s famous “Salut demeure” with its climactic high C. Marguerite also gets the noted jewel song, which is often performed in concerts by sopranos around the world.

Of course, Méphistophélès gets his famed “Le veau d’or,” a ball of energy that expresses the devil’s potency in a fun manner.

Watch and Listen

While this version might not be the most visually arresting, it showcases three major interpreters of the opera in Mirella Freni, Alfredo Kraus, and Nicolai Ghiaurov. It’s singing at its finest.

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