The Legend of Faust
The sensual philosopher who endlessly desires and always doubts; who thinks omnipotence and omniscience within his grasp but fears he is on the verge of slipping back into the primeval slime; who denies the necessity of God but embraces the possibility of Satan has been like a mirror for "modern" man since the Renaissance.
The legend has its origin with Dr. Johann Faustus, a scholar, alchemist, magician, healer and charlatan who died violently under mysterious circumstances circa 1540. In 1587 Johann Spies published a History of Dr. Johann Faust, the Famous Magician and Practitioner of Black Arts. It served Marlowe as the source of his Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, first performed in 1589. Marlowe's play emphasized the serious aspects of the story, but as the play established itself in Germany, the spectacular and comic elements became dominant and eventually brought about the play's disrepute. By the eighteenth century the story was relegated to puppet shows for children. It was in this form that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) first became acquainted with the legend which was to occupy him for nearly sixty years. His monumental two part work retained the popular aspects of the puppet plays and made two notable plot additions which were to form the core of the most popular operatic setting. As Goethe aged (he was 59 when Part I was published), his conception of Faust changed. Faust too became an aging man whose first demand is to be restored to youthful vigor and appearance. This change brought a greater poignancy to the episode which was completely an invention of Goethe: the love affair of Faust and Gretchen. This new character is not in herself compelling, but she symbolizes a trusting innocence against which is set the doubt and experience of Faust and the cynical negation of the Devil. This provides a dynamic triumvirate which is ideal for the simpler emotional needs of the lyric stage.
When Charles Gounod (1818-1893) set about writing an opera based on the legend, his talented librettist, Jules Barbier (1825-1901) did not attempt to adapt the monumental work of Goethe, but limited himself essentially to the story of the fall and redemption of the peasant girl, renamed Marguerite. By emphasizing her innocence and Faust's ardor, Barbier produced a libretto ideally suited to Gounod's basically lyric gifts. (Michel Carre, usually credited as co-librettist, was responsible only for Le Veau ci'Or and Le Roi de Thule) Because of the length of the libretto, extensive cuts were necessary before the first performance in 1859, and there are many more m most modern productions. This causes the libretto to lose some of its original coherence. For that reason an attempt has been made below to relate the story as originally conceived by Barbier.
The Story of the Opera
Scene 1 - Faust's study, before dawn Faust, an aged philosopher and alchemist, is poring over an ancient tome [according to Goethe, it was the prophecies of Nostradamus]. He laments that life and the pursuit of knowledge have yielded nothing but disillusionment and despair. [In Barbier's original libretto his pupils, Wagner and Siebel, arrive at this point. Wagner announces he has joined the army and that Siebel is not doing well in his theological studies because he is infatuated with the sister of the veteran soldier, Valentin. The students leave after a trio.)
Faust salutes h1s final dawn, fills a goblet with poison, and raises it to his lips. He falters as he hears the sound of a group of maidens passing by in the street. Again he lifts the goblet, only to hear the reapers on their way to work in the fields, hymning their gratitude to God. Faust curses everything he has hitherto held dear and invokes Satan. Mephistopheles suddenly materializes, garbed as un vrai gentilhomme. He offers gold, glory, and power in return for Faust's immortal soul, but Faust, instead, demands the gift of youth. Mephistopheles agrees. Youth and love shall be Faust's and Mephistopheles his servant. Below, of course, Faust will serve him. Faust hesitates until the fiend tempts him with a vision of the lovely Marguerite. The orchestra depicts the maiden at her spinning" wheel. Mephistopheles offers the poison goblet, now transmuted into a magic potion. Faust seizes the goblet, drains it, and is transformed into a handsome youth. Mephistopheles promises he shall see Marguerite that very day, and Faust impetuously dashes out of the study followed by the grinning fiend .
Scene 2 - The Kermesse, midday
The scene is a square near one of the city gates [according to Goethe, the city is Leipzig], before an inn distinguished by the figure of Bacchus. There is a fair - La Kermesse - and all are enjoying themselves ("Vin ou biere"). Students led by Wagner extol the joys of serious drinking. The soldiers are ready to storm castles or maidens. The townsmen would rather talk and relax. Young girls and students exchange admiring glances as the disapproving and jealous matrons look on. Valentin enters, carrying a religious medal given him by his sister. [In the original libretto Marguerite entered with Valentin, thus providmg the occasion for a farewell duet. It was wisely decided to delay her first entrance and substitute the medal for her instead.] Valentin is greeted by Wagner and Siebel. The youth offers to watch over Marguerite, and Valentin prays for her protection ("Avant de quitter ces lieux").
Wagner proposes a return to drinking and launches into a song about a rat. Mephistopheles interrupts him and proposes a contribution of his own. Mephistopheles eschews subtlety and praises the calf of gold ("Le veau d'or"), which contemplates humanity wallowing in the blood and filth at its feet as Satan leads the ball. The fiend becomes a palmist, prophesying Wagner's death in battle and Siebel's inability to touch a flower without its fading. There will be no more bouquets for Marguerite. Mephistopheles spurns the students' vin ordinaire and commands the figure of Bacchus to breach his cask, and as a stream of wine flows from the sign, offers a toast to Marguerite. Valentin, enraged, challenges Mephistopheles, who traces a circle around himself. Valentin's sword is shattered by the invisible barrier. All now recognize the Enemy and reverse their swords to form the Sign of the Cross as they withdraw.
Faust appears, impatient to see the maid promised him. The stage fills with revelers who begin a waltz [a glaring anachronism for the sixteenth century, but a most popular dance in 1859]. As Mephistopheles blocks Siebel's path, Marguerite crosses the square. Faust bows to the belle pemoiselle, who refuses his offer to escort her. Gazing after her, he exclaims that he is in love as the waltz resumes.
ACT II - Marguerite's garden at dusk
[originally Act Ill, the Kermesse being the original Act II]
Siebel enters, palpitating with puppy love ("Faites-lui mes aveux"). He picks a flower. It withers at his touch. He tries again with the same result. He dips his fingers in a holy water font. The spell is removed, and he is able to pick a bouquet of Marguerite's flowers for Marguerite. Mephistopheles, accompanied by Faust, watches with sardonic amusement from behind the bushes. Siebel exits, and Mephistopheles leaves on an errand of his own. Faust, gazing at Marguerite's house, sings of his love ("Salut! demeure chaste et pure"). Mephistopheles returns with a jewel case and places it beside Siebel's bouquet. As Marguerite comes from the house, he drags Faust out of sight. Marguerite seats herself at her spinning wheel and sings of a faithful King of Thule, breaking off to muse on her encounter with the handsome stranger. She notices the bouquet from the pauvre garçon, Siebel, and is dazzled by the jewel box and its enticing contents. She adorns herself, gazing in delight at her reflection in a mirror conveniently included with the sparkling treasure ("Ah! Je ns de me voir si belle en ce miroir!" ). Marthe bustles in and is struck by Marguerite's appearance. Mephistopheles and Faust reenter, and the infernal cavalier blithely informs Marthe that her husband is dead. Marthe's grief is noisy but shortlived . As Faust and Marguerite stroll through the garden, Marthe sets her cap for the sardonic stranger. As night falls, Mephistopheles eludes Marthe, and in a solemn invocation ("II etait temps!") casts a spell over the garden. Faust and Marguerite sing of their rapturous love until Marguerite, fearful of her emotions, pulls away and runs into the house. Faust rushes toward the garden gate, but his way is blocked by Mephistopheles who advises him to wait. Marguerite appears at the window and sings of her love. Faust, crying out her name, enters the house as Mephistopheles roars with triumphant, fiendish glee.
[The remaining scenes form parts of the fourth and fifth acts in the original libretto. In an omitted scene - IV, i -Marguerite abandoned and carrying Faust's child, sings of her sorrow and is comforted by the faithful Siebel.]
Scene 1 - The street before Marguerite's house, a few months later [IV, iii] The soldiers, Valentin among them, return from the wars. They sing of military glory ("Gioire immortelle de nos aieux"). Valentin enters the house.
Mephistopheles, carrying a guitar, approaches the house with Faust. Faust, remorseful, does not wish to enter. Mephistopheles sings a vicious serenade in which he chides the unfortunate girl within for surrendering before she had a wedding ring on her finger. As expected by the fiend, Valentin rushes from the house, sword in hand, and smashes the guitar. "Don't you like music?" asks Mephistopheles. Valentin demands satisfaction from either Faust or Mephistopheles ("Redouble, o Dieu puissant'') and, in revulsion over his sister's condition, flings away the medal she had given him - and thus the protection of her prayers. He parries with Faust. On the fourth thrust Mephistopheles deflects Valentin's sword, allowing Faust to strike a mortal blow. Fiend and philosopher depart.
The townspeople (and Marthe) arrive on the scene as Marguerite, supported by Siebel, appears in the doorway. She rushes to her brother, who repulses her and accuses her of being responsible for his death at the hands of her lover. Despite Siebel's pleading, Valentin curses Marguerite to a death in wretchedness and misery. He dies. The crowd prays that "the Lord receive his soul and pardon the sinner."
Scene 2 - The church, moments later [IV, ii]
[In Barbier's original libretto the following scene occurred in the middle of the preceding scene. The soldiers entered and Valentin sang an aria, replaced by the famous Soldiers' Chorus, which Gounod had already written for another project, Ivan the Terrible. As Valentin entered Marguerite's house, the walls of the nearby church opened, revealing Marguerite in prayer. At the end of the church scene, the walls closed again as Faust and Mephistopheles entered for the Serenade and Duel. Although this scene is placed before the Soldiers' Chorus from the second vocal edition on, we are following the sequence found in the 1859 vocal edition. This sequence is felt to be more dramatically appropriate and is in the same order and has the sanction of agreeing with Goethe's arrangement.]
Marguerite enters and kneels to beg God's mercy, but Mephistopheles summons evil spirits who call her by name as the fiend taunts her with recollections of her days in church as an innocent child. Now hell summons her: eternal remorse, eternal anguish, eternal night. A choir of priests and boys adds to her torment as they sing of the Day of Judgment ("Quand du Seigneur le jour luira"). She collapses in a faint. The fiend vanishes.
[The first scenes of Act V, omitted in tonight's performance, occur at, near, on, and in the Hartz Mountains. Scene 1 takes place on a high summit. It is the Walpurgisnacht. The second scene occurs in the interior of the mountain where the queens and courtesans of antiquity are gathered for Faust's delectation (it was at this point that the ballet music was inserted for the first performance at the Opera). As Faust raises his goblet to them, a vision of Marguerite appears to him. He flings the goblet from him. The scene vanishes, leaving Faust and his familiar in the Valley of the Brocken (Scene 3). Faust insists upon returning to aid Marguerite.]
Scene 3 - The prison, before dawn [V, iv]
Marguerite, her mind unhinged, has murdered her newborn infant and is in prison awaiting execution. [The original libretto gave Marguerite a full-blown mad scene, at the end of which she sank exhausted on her pallet. The ensuing duet between Faust and Marguerite was, even in the early performances, an extremely extended scene, much of which has been deleted in most modern editions.]
Faust and Mephistopheles enter the cell where Marguerite lies asleep. Faust's mortal hand must unlock the door to effect Marguerite's escape. Mephistopheles urges haste. The scaffold is ready. Faust, still thinking himself in command of the situation, orders the fiend to wait outside. Faust's voice awakens the girl, who finally recognizes him. Her mind wanders as she babbles of the street where they first met and the garden where they loved. Mephistopheles returns. Marguerite, her mind clearing, sees him for what he is and, calling on God for protection, summons shining angels to bear her soul to heaven as Faust and Mephistopheles attempt to drag her away (the trio, "Anges purs, anges radieux", ascends through three keys as it builds to a climax). With a final cry of revulsion, Marguerite pushes Faust from her and falls lifeless. "Condemned!" proclaims Mephistopheles, but the decision is not his. "Saved!" cries the angelic host. "Christ is risen!"
[The final six bars of the printed editions are spurious and are, therefore, omitted in this performance.]
Notes by Arthur F. Edwards