Faust, Opera by C. Gounod
Given that at one point he entertained thoughts of training for the priesthood, it may be a little surprising to modern-day audiences that Charles Gounod should have chosen to write an opera in which his hero makes a pact with the devil. But Gounod also grew up in the cultural maelstrom of the early nineteenth century. And the story of Faust, Goethe’s monumental two-part play, had left an indelible mark on his imagination.
In Gounod’s version of the tale, Faust, now an old man, has all but given up on life. When Satan in the form of Méphistophélès bargains for his soul, Faust chooses to rediscover his lost youth. Méphistophélès then throws further temptation Faust’s way in the form of Marguerite who melts his heart.
Under Méphistophélès’ influence, Faust’s behaviour is deplorable. Marguerite bears his child but Faust is nowhere to be seen. When he does return, it is only to murder Marguerite’s enraged brother, Valentin. Driven close to insanity by all that has happened, Marguerite then kills her baby. As she faces the scaffold, will she finally escape Faust’s hold over her or follow him into hell?
First performed at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris on 19 March 1859, Faust was initially something of a slow burner, but when it was finally premiered at the Opéra de Paris a decade later, it went on to become a phenomenon, dominating the schedules of the Palais Garnier well into the twentieth century. Now it’s the turn of the Vienna State Opera to provide the stage for Faust and Méphistophélès’ machinations.
Gounod was a brilliant orchestrator with each scene of Faust perfectly framed by his choice of instrumentation. And while his eponymous protagonist may have few redeeming qualities, the music Gounod reserves for him is some of the most gorgeously tender ever written in opera, in particular “Salut! Demeure chaste et pure” as he takes his first tentative steps to win Marguerite’s affections.