Gounod’s Redemption of Faust

Polish opera singer Edouard de Reszke (1853-1917) as Méphistophélès in Gounod’s Faust

“Well, doctor, what do you want of me? 
Let us see; speak! 
Do I frighten you?”

Méphistophélès needs no introduction, and no one need tell you that should you see him coming, it’s best to run the other way. Faust stood his ground and lived to regret it…at least in some versions of the story.

Johann Georg Faust, a graduate of Heidelberg University, lived in Germany between 1480 and 1540. He was famed for his claim to be Satan’s son-in-law. He was famous for many other things as well, most of which were rather unsavory. It wasn’t long before his exploits at fortune-telling, alchemy, and magic were chronicled by an anonymous author and immediately published as Historia, von D. Johann Faustus in 1587. Within five years, this book was translated into English by another anonymous writer known only as P.F., Gentleman.  In short order, the brilliant playwright Christopher Marlowe added his version, The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, and this seems to be the most widely received of the versions then available. The adaptation that captured the world’s attention, however, was the great theological and philosophical work, Faust, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (pronounced ger-tuh), which has held sway over readers since 1832, when Part Two (the final installment) was completed. This dense and far-ranging argument about the condition of mankind, our relationship with God, and the possibility and conditions of our salvation became almost holy writ in Germany, and has been studied in universities across the world for more than a century. In all these years, it has inspired innumerable other books, plays, films, and operas based on the imagined life of a Medieval necromancer.

The version of Faust that has had the widest audience, however, is not the revered play of Goethe’s pen (though that is still the most performed play in Germany), but a less philosophical and perhaps more entertaining opera based on Goethe’s Part One: Gounod’s Faust. In the 24 years between its first performance at the famed Palais Garnier in 1869 (ten years after the Théâtre Lyrique world premiere) and Gounod’s death in 1893, the opera had become the most performed work in that house. Faust was also the opera chosen to open the Metropolitan Opera in 1883, and has achieved well more than 700 performances there; it has more than a thousand in Paris.

Goethe’s great masterwork, which has held the world’s attention for so long, ends differently from Marlowe’s play, which ends with Faust going to Hell as a trophy for Méphistophélès. Goethe took the opposite direction: a forgiving Gretchen (Marguerite in the opera) prays on Faust’s behalf, and at the moment that he should be consigned to perdition, God forgives him. Except for the ruin of Gretchen, Faust used the power of Hell to do good works on earth, releasing him from his bargain with Méphistophélès; he was redeemed.

Gounod’s opera does not dabble in this controversy over damnation vs. salvation; rather, it does all it can to meet public expectations and be entertaining. He was not trying to make a reputation on philosophy or scandal, but still, Gounod was dealing in a subject that can spark all manner of reactions and responses. The age-old “deal with the devil” story takes on a particular aura, no matter how the author attempts to avoid controversy.

Marguerite's Garden
Marguerite’s garden in Act 3 of the opera Faust by Gounod as presented in the original production at the Théâtre Lyrique on 19 March 1859. Set design by Charles-Antoine Cambon and Joseph Thierry.

In truth, Faust is not a man of ill intention; he might be better described as foolish rather than evil, a hot-blooded teenager eager to have his pent-up desires satisfied rather than a calculating villain out to hurt others. Indeed, he does seduce an attractive and innocent young woman, and then he leaves her when his desire is sated. Once out looking for his next exploit, he does not think to inquire after her condition. He doesn’t think at all until she is brought to mind after all possible damage has been accomplished, other than her complete destruction. There is nothing admirable in that, but nothing malicious, either – just blind stupidity. Stupidity can do enormous damage, but is it evil? When Faust does sense (through divine inspiration) that all is not well, he insists on coming to the rescue and Méphistophélès is powerless to stop him. Once with Gretchen, seeing the disaster he has brought down upon her, he does his best to save her life. He fails, but not for lack of good intentions and real effort. So, is he beyond redemption? That becomes the question in every Faust, even in Gounod’s romantic 19th-century opera. Goethe posited that those of good intention, who strive to do good, are eligible for salvation; Gretchen forgave Faust, so why shouldn’t the creator of the universe forgive him, too? Much like the deathbed confession and true regret that saves the soul of a Roman Catholic, or the transforming moment of conversion when Jesus is recognized as the Christ, which saves the soul of a Baptist, Faust is forgiven in Goethe’s version. Is this divine justice? It may be, but this isn’t why Gounod’s operatic adaptation has been so popular for so very long. This popularity rests in the richly beautiful, sensuous music.

French opera of the mid to late 19th century is particularly blessed with stunning music. Carmen, The Pearl Fishers, Manon, Werther, Thaïs, Roméo et Juliette, and so many others, are among the most pleasing to hear of all operas. Even those that don’t have librettos of the stature of Faust are still richly rewarding purely through the quality of the music. In Gounod’s Faust, the most moving music is, perhaps, the love duet between Faust and Marguerite at the midpoint of the work, but the most rousing is the Soldiers’ Chorus in Act III. That which is most transcendent is the final trio between Marguerite, Faust and Méphistophélès at the very end of the opera, which is undoubtedly among the most affecting ensembles in all opera.

The staging of Faust is being realized by director Brad Dalton, who brought you our most recent productions of Idomeneo, Anna Karenina, Così fan tutte, and Madama Butterfly, all of which were superior productions with surprisingly fresh interpretations that were both visually striking and dramatically powerful. Steven C. Kemp (Anna Karenina and Idomeneo) has aided Dalton in bringing this vision to the stage, and his designs are arresting. David Lee Cuthbert (The Crucible, Lucia di Lammermoor, The Marriage of Figaro, Eugene Onegin) will design the lighting. Costumes will be provided by Malabar, and are based on clothes of the 16th century.