Recommended recording

Curated by Maryna Boiko, Primephonic Curator

About this work

The first French translations of Goethe's Faust -- a literary staple for Romantics everywhere -- appeared in 1823, but, as even Goethe noted, they were surpassed in quality by Gérard de Nerval's 1827 translation. After these early translations, French art saw a profusion of popular plays, musical works, and paintings based on the story. Gounod's operatic treatment, Faust, which premièred on March 19, 1859, at Paris' Théâtre-Lyrique to great acclaim, is one of a number of musical treatments of the theme by French musicians; these include Louise Bertin's opera Fausto (1831) and Hector Berlioz's "dramatic legend" La Damnation de Faust (1846).

Jules Barbier constructed the libretto for Gounod's Faust from excerpts which he lifted, with the author's permission, from Michel Carré's play Faust et Marguerite (1850). Carré gave Barbier carte blanche to borrow from his play; he himself was busy writing the libretto for Meyerbeer's Le Padron de Ploërmel (Dinorah), and had no interest in adapting the play for operatic treatment.

The rehearsal process leading up to the premiere was difficult; Gounod made substantial cuts to his score and replaced the leading tenor, who was found to be inadequate, during the dress rehearsal. This original version contained spoken dialogue rather than recitative; in 1860 Gounod supplied music for these sections, thereby making the opera viable for performance in opera houses outside of France. The work indeed enjoyed considerable popularity internationally. It benefited especially from the circumstances of its London premiere, for which Gounod composed the now-famous aria "Avant de quitter ces lieux." The role of Marguerite's brother, Valentin, originally contained no aria, but the composer was persuaded to add it on the merits of the talented baritone, Charles Santley; this aria is now among the most popular excerpts from the score. For Faust's premiere at the Paris Opéra in 1869, Gounod composed a complete ballet to be placed near the beginning of Act Five; it was arguably this production, the work's most lavish yet, that propelled Faust to its position of unchallenged popularity in France -- a position it maintained for the better part of a century.

The music of Gounod's Faust shows at every turn its membership in the lineage of French grand opera; numbers of strongly defined form, bel canto lyricism, and expressive orchestration all mark the score. Many major scenes are beautifully set by distinctive orchestral textures. The apparition of Marguerite at her spinning wheel in Act One, Scene Two is introduced by hushed strings and woodwinds and sparkling notes in the harp; the first violins illustrate the perpetual motion of Maguerite's spinning wheel with a magical filigree of 32nd notes, foreshadowing her spinning song ("Il ne revient pas") in Act Four. A chorale of trumpet and trombones announces the entrance of the pious Valentin in Act Two, Scene Two; his first aria ("Avant de quitter ces lieux") follows, in orthodox ternary (ABA) form. Rondo form is implied in the structure of Act Two, Scene Five, in which the recurring waltz music of a ball alternates with contrasting episodes of individual expression. Faust's Act Three cavatina ("Salut! demeure chaste et pure") is a classic example of a traditional grand opera ternary-form cavatina. Perhaps the best-known number of the opera is Marguerite's brooding Act Four, Scene Six chanson ("Il était un roi de Thulé"), a modified take on the strophic couplet common in grand opera. Also of note is Méfistofélé's crass and saccharine serenade, "Vous qui fete l'endormie," which he sings to the sleeping Marguerite; his complete disregard for her human worth makes for a dramatic foil to her piety and eventual redemption. The addition of the solo organ in Act Four, Scene Three, is another striking orchestral feature.

As shown with moderate accuracy in the film The Age of Innocence, Faust long seemed the inevitable opening-night presentation of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.