Great moments in opera: Faust

June 22, 2011

There was a time when Gounod’s Faust was one of the most popular operas in the world. It was the first opera to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and over the years it has been translated into over twenty languages. It has fallen into comparative disfavour in recent decades, but has certainly not vanished. It is, like the poem on which it is based, very much a creature of the nineteenth-century, thriving in those hot vents where Romanticism rubs up against the Enlightenment. I think it is fair to say that the Faust legend does not resonate so strongly with us today as it once did, and perhaps this partly accounts for the slide in popularity.

The source material is Goethe’s Faust, Part I, which focuses on the relationship of Faust and Margaret — a story that was not part of the medieval legend, but was Goethe’s own invention. (It was for this reason, says the Earl of Harewood in his Opera Book, that Germans of his time referred to the opera, rather archly, not as Faust but as Marguerite.) Faust, an old man who laments the futility of the studies to which he has devoted his life, makes a pact with Méphistophélès (Old Scratch himself): in exchange for youth and the fulfillment of his desires he will surrender his soul in the next world. Faust seduces Marguerite, and fathers her child. Abandoned by him, she kills the baby and is imprisoned. The opera ends with Marguerite, repentent, being taken into heaven.

One of Faust’s finest moments, both musically and morally, in which he celebrates the innocence and beauty of Marguerite, occurs in the aria Salut, demeure chaste et pure. This is sung before he seduces her, and he is not to know another such moment of repose and peace again. The aria is sung here by Roberto Alagna in a recent production. English subtitles are included.

Enchanted by Marguerite, Faust instructs Méphistophélès to acquire a gift adequate to her charms. He returns with a jewel chest, which is placed at Marguerite’s door. Discovering it, she sings what is probably the most celebrated music from the opera: the Jewel Song (O Dieu! que de bijoux). It is a virtuoso showpiece, with some tricky vocal flutters and a big finish. Here is Angela Gheorghiu, again with English subtitles:

Faust’s seduction is a success, but when Marguerite’s soldiering brother returns from the front (providing an occasion for a rousing chorus, linked at the top of this post) and discovers that Faust has disgraced her, he challenges Faust to a duel. With Méphistophélès’ help Faust slays his opponent, and Marguerite, in sorrow and terror, retreats to a church to pray. This is the site of the famous “Church scene”, in which Marguerite finds herself at the center of a spiritual war. Here is Angela Gheorghiu again, with Bryn Terfel a terrific Méphistophélès. The clip is quite long, but this is a scene that has won this opera much praise.

The final Act of the opera portrays the lurid Walpurgis Night festival, at which Méphistophélès presides over a carnival of witches and demons. At break of dawn Faust, disgusted, seeks out Marguerite in her prison cell to seek reconciliation. Marguerite, however, has not long to live. As she dies, the heavens open to receive her soul. Here, again, are Roberto Alagna, Angela Gheorghiu, and Bryn Terfel in the closing minutes of the opera.

Faust is new to me, and as such I am not able to make a confident appraisal of it. I will say that I did not much care for it on first acquaintance. Perhaps part of the problem is that I watched a DVD performance (not the one linked in the clips above) that was just awful: well sung, but badly lit, poorly edited, inertly staged, and so ineptly managed that the story was all but incomprehensible. But I do not think that entirely accounts for my lack of enthusiasm. The music did not really catch my ear, and the opera unfolded rather heavily and slowly. I acknowledge that a great many people disagree with me.

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