207. Faust (Gounod)

  • Opéra in 5 acts
  • Composer: Charles Gounod
  • Libretto: Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, after Faust I by Goethe
  • First performance: Théâtre-Lyrique (Boulevard du Temple), 19 March 1859, conducted by Adolphe Deloffre (57 performances)
  • Revised as a grand opéra with ballet: Théâtre de l’Opéra (salle Le Peletier), 3 March 1869.


LE DOCTEUR FAUSTTénorJoseph-Théodore-Désiré Barbot
MÉPHISTOPHÉLÈSBass-baritoneMathieu-Émile Balanqué
VALENTINBaritoneOsmond Raynal
WAGNERBaritoneEmile Cibot
MARGUERITESopranoMarie Caroline Miolan-Carvalho
SIÉBELSopranoAmélie Faivre
MARTHEMezzoBarbe Eléonore Duclos

SETTING: Germany, 16th century.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

You can blame Faust for this blog. (The devil made me do it!)

Faust was the first opera I saw live (Opera Australia, 1998), and the first opera CD I owned. Opera, of course, had always been there. My parents regularly went to La Monnaie, and I enjoyed CDs of The Flying Dutchman, The Pearl Fishers, Straszny dwór, etc. (I even sat down at the age of seven or eight and listened to Rheingold; I was into Norse mythology.)

At the age of 15, I was thrilled by Faust. Here were heaven and hell onstage, with swordfights, a love story, and wonderful music. (I knew of the Jewel Song from Tintin, sung by the Milanese nightingale, Bianca Castafiore: “Ah, my beauty past compare!”) It was sinister and sardonic and sensuous at once. It influenced my writing: there was a detective story where “Dr Morning” (saturnine and Satanic) manifested as a supernatural avenger; a James Bond spoof where the spy sold his soul to escape from death (“The sacrifices I make for England!”); and an idea about a tenor inadvertently conjuring up the real Mephisto onstage.

When I went through a religious (and Wagnerian!) phase in my early twenties, Faust struck me as a spiritual opera, dealing with the great themes of sin, redemption, and forgiveness; if Berlioz’s version was the Damnation of Faust, Gounod’s was the Salvation of Marguerite. Here was an opera where the characters’ moral choices mattered, and where their afterlives were as important as their lives and deaths.

And as I grow older, Faust strikes me as a work depicting mid-life crisis. We look back on life, and wonder if we’ve made all we could of it; if we had the chance, would we do things differently? In my case, like the aged scholar, I sometimes regret that youth and love have passed me by; I’ve been an observer, not a participant, of life; and a life of books and study seems intellectually engaging, but emotionally unfulfilling.

Faust, then, speaks to me in a way few other operas do; it captures my imagination; and as an opera, it is wonderfully melodic , imaginatively orchestrated, and with a kaleidoscopic variety of moods and colours.


Faust was Gounod’s fourth opera, and his greatest success. It was performed 2,000 times in Paris by 1934; it inaugurated the New York Met in 1883 (‘the Faustspielhaus’); and in the early 20th century, it was the most popular opera in the world.

It is unquestionably Gounod’s operatic masterpiece, the first opera in which he is definitively himself, and in which he most combines a theatrically effective story with his devout religiosity and memorable tunes. Its mixture of black magic, religious piety, sentiment, and wit mean there is something in it for everyone.

Engraving, 1893.

It was not the first time Goethe’s magnificent closet drama had been adapted by musicians. Berlioz turned it into a légende dramatique (1846); Spohr into an opera (1813), as Boito (1868) later did; Wagner into an overture (1840); and Liszt into a symphony (1857). But Gounod’s is the most enduring, even though German purists dismiss it.

Gounod had wanted to set Goethe’s play to music ever since he read it in his student days in Rome. “I always carried it with me, and I sketched here and there a few tunes to use it on the day when I decided to write the work, which I finally did 17 years later,” Gounod recalled. A moonlit walk on the boulders of Capri provided him the inspiration for the Walpurgisnacht music.

His chance came in 1856, when the librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré agreed to write an opera book for him. (Carré’s play Marguerite et Faust was performed in 1850.) Carvalho, impresario of the Théâtre-Lyrique, liked the idea, and Gounod and his librettists set to work. But the Porte Saint-Martin produced a melodrama of Faust, and so Carvalho delayed the opera. To compensate Gounod, Carvalho commissioned Le Médecin malgré lui, after Molière, performed in 1858. Since the Porte-Saint-Martin Faust was unsuccessful, Carvalho urged Gounod to finish his score.

In its original version, Faust was not the grand opera we know today; it was an opéra-comique, with spoken dialogue. Gounod composed several numbers that were later cut: a trio for Faust and his two students; a duet for Marguerite and Valentin; Méphistophèles’s Song of the Beetle; an aria for Siebel; a chorus of witches; a mad scene for Marguerite in the prison.

Rehearsals begin in September 1858, and they were rather fraught. Gounod envisaged Mme Ugalde, ‘une forte chanteuse de grand opéra’, as Marguerite, but Carvalho’s wife, a brilliant coloratura soprano, wanted the role, so Gounod rewrote the role for her voice. The young tenor originally meant to sing Faust, Guardi, suffered a cold, lost his voice, and was replaced by Barbot. The church scene was almost banned, but Gounod appealed to the Apostolic Nuncio; although almost blind, the papal ambassador was impressed by the beauty and power of the scene.

Surprisingly, the early audiences did not take to Faust; they found the music too novel, too difficult.

Gounod’s early biographer, Imbert, commented that the work was not meant to seduce the public from the outset; it impressed high-minded artists who, respecting and loving the past, always looked to the future. Thus, Berlioz reported “a grand and legitimate success”, and Ernest Reyer placed Faust “among the most beautiful works of the period; a work in which very slight imperfections are erased by inspirations and beauties of the first order.”

Joseph d’Ortigue (Le Ménestrel) declared Faust was a masterpiece. “Each number is based on a grand and skilfully developed musical subject. The instrumentation is at once sober, rich, robust, picturesque, varied, and delicate. … M. Gounod writes as a man who possesses equally the language of the intellect and the language of the ear, the language of words and the language of sounds. He perfectly phrases his recitatives, he knows how to shape a dialogue, he knows the power of the voice and the energy of versification. The poetic phrase is embedded in his musical phrase, which means that, with all the learning, all the inspiration that make the great musician, M. Gounod joins the qualities that make the cultivated man, and we understand, from the beauties of his music, that he possesses, to the highest degree, a feeling for all the beauties of the other arts.”

Félix Clément, praised Gounod’s musicianship (although had reservations about Faust itself). “He displayed remarkable faculties in this work; first of all a harmonic science of the first order; then a great theatrical understanding and the most ingenious appropriation of the colours of the orchestra to the different characters of the characters and to the very varied situations of this moving drama. … The whole musical work is interesting, especially because of its remarkable appropriation to the various situations of the drama. Each piece offers an ordinarily short phrase, but of a strong or ingenious truth of expression; from the point of view of art proper, we would like these phrases to be more developed.”

But, Imbert continued, Faust did not please those who remained faithful to traditions and did not want any innovation in art. Gounod’s previous operas – the Gluckian Sapho (1851), a failure of a grand opera called La Nonne sanglante (1854), and the Molièrean opéra-comique Le médecin malgré lui – would not have led them to expect Faust.

“Musical aberration!” hissed the critics. “Incomprehensible!” “Music with a continuous melody, that is to say, without full stop or comma, emerging, like the music of Schumann, Liszt, and Wagner, from the madness of Beethoven’s last quartets.” “Faust is not the work of a melodist!”

Two famous publishers, both devotees of the Italian school, claimed that it wouldn’t last a fortnight. Sceptics asserted that the opera lacked tunes; the music was souvenirs reassembled by a scholar. The only scenes the public liked were the Kermesse scene and the Soldiers’ chorus. Otherwise, said the sceptics, the Garden Scene should be cut, because it held up the action. It was boring, it was long, it was cold. According to Carvalho, hecklers hissed, made animal noises, and even threw rotten fruit.

In La France musicale, Léon Escudier reproached Gounod for bringing to the theatre what must be left in the concert hall. “Apart from two choirs, full of originality and very beautiful, and the magnificent garden scene, everything that is sung is dull, colourless, without fire; on the other hand, everything that the orchestra plays is gracefully poetic and rich in colour. And this is Gounod’s mistake: he does not put the effect in the voices, he puts it in the instruments.”

A century and a half later, the hostility seems bizarre. No tunes in Faust? The Jewel Song, so ubiquitous that it was apparently the only aria Bianca Castafiore knew; Méphistophélès’s Golden Calf song, ‘Le veau d’or’; Faust’s suave cavatine ‘Salut! demeure chaste et pure’; the quartet in the garden scene; the trio that closes the opera… (Valentin’s ‘Avant de quitter ces lieux’, a popular baritone concert piece, was written for a later production.)

Even many of those who admired Faust, did so with reservations. Pierre Scudo (Revue des deux mondes) wondered if Gounod was a contemporary Cherubini. He admired Gounod’s elegance and purity of style; the sobriety of colours and the perfect taste that shone in the smallest details of his instrumentation; the delicacy of details and the happy choice of his instrumentation; all these showed a master who had drunk from pure and holy springs. But Scudo also complained about the scarcity of melody.

The problem, thought the 20th century composer Henri Sauguet, was that Faust did not correspond to the customs of Meyerbeer or Rossini. “No great uproar or great effects; here it was necessary to listen to the musician more closely, to pay attention to his delicate, sometimes confidential remarks, to accept an unusual turn of the melody, in the tunes as in the ensembles. Gounod proposed a whole new way of writing (and listening).”

At the time, the percipient Berlioz regretted his countrymen’s inability to understand the work. “I know of nothing more discouraging for composers than this lukewarmness of the French audience for musical beauties of this nature. He hardly listens to them. The melody is elusive for him, the movement is too slow, the coloring too soft, the accent too intimate. He says, “Yes, that’s not bad,” vaguely nods, and thinks no more, another application of Shakspeare’s word: Caviar to the general.”

Gounod reflected: “Faust’s success was not brilliant; it is, however, so far my greatest success in the theatre. Does this mean that it is my best work? I don’t know; in any case, I believe it confirms my belief that success is the result of a certain combination of happy elements and favorable conditions rather than a proof and a measure of the intrinsic value of the work itself. It is through surfaces that the public’s favour is first won; it is in the depths that it is maintained and strengthened. It takes a certain time to grasp and appropriate the expression and the meaning of that infinity of details that make up a drama.”

Faust, in fact, did not find success until he revised it. Gounod replaced the original spoken dialogues with sung recitatives for a Strasbourg production in 1860; the Théâtre-Lyrique used these in 1866, so did the Paris Opéra from 1869. There, it became the most frequently performed French opera after Les Huguenots. For the Opéra version, Gounod wrote the obligatory grand ballet.

Outside France, however, Faust was a hit from the start. The Belgians, the Germans, the Italians all liked it. (Verdi intervened to have it performed in Rome, just as Gounod had persuaded Hugo and Dumas fils to have Rigoletto, Ernani and Traviata staged.) The Americans first heard it in 1862, the British a year later – where it fell into the public domain from the start, thanks to a delay in lodging the work.

Wagner, though, loathed it; he complained he had never heard such an awkward, disgusting, and vulgar work. Similarly, the Wagnerian Ernest Newman complained of its sentimentality and ‘Catholicism sucré’.

Even today, despite misguided attempts to stage the work in brothels, with the devil in fishnet stockings and Faust a junkie, or a scientist who invents the atom bomb, Faust is one of the 50 most performed operas in the world and has been translated into 25 different languages. Gounod’s opera is immortal.


The classic Faust is André Cluytens’ 1958 recording (EMI) with Nicolai Gedda, Victoria de los Ángeles, and Boris Christoff; Christoff is magnificent, black-voiced, sinister, and wry, even though his French pronunciation is eccentric.

Christophe Rousset’s 2019 recording (Bru Zane) restores Gounod’s original intentions, including several pieces that had been cut; it features Benjamin Bernheim, Véronique Gens, and Andrew Foster-Williams.

The Faust enthusiast might also want to listen to the 1912 Léon Beyle set and the 1930 Vezzani/Journet set, for the authentic French style; Beecham’s 1947–8 set with Georges Noré, Roger Rico and Géori Boué; and Michel Plasson’s 1991 recording, which has an appendix of hitherto unrecorded numbers.

The first two acts are often performed as one.

ACT I: Faust’s study

Dr. Faust, alone in his study, regrets his wasted years and useless knowledge, and dreams of dying. Just as he is about to drink poison, he hears choruses of young girls and ploughmen celebrating spring, fruitful labour, the joy of living. Disenchanted with everything, old Faust curses this happiness, love, and faith. He summons Satan, who appears in the guise of Méphistophèles. Faust asks the Devil to restore his youth so he can enjoy the pleasures of the flesh. Méphistophèles agrees, on the condition that Faust serve him in Hell. He conjures up a magic vision of the innocent maiden Marguerite, and changes the poison into an elixir of youth; Faust is transformed into an elegant lord, at the cost of his soul.

Set design, Paris Opéra, 1892. Source: Gallica.

Faust opens with a meditative prologue, whose “sombre and stagnant harmony,” Berlioz wrote, was “an admirable image of the suffering, the black meditations of the old doctor”. Faust’s long monologue, Giroud writes, defies characterisation; it is “a kind of mini-cantata with arioso-style recitatives blending into short areas, punctuated by offstage choral interventions”. Faust resolves to kill himself in an ironic drinking song (‘Salut, ô mon dernier matin!’). But the sounds of the outside world – lively choruses full of the bloom of youth – break in on his troubled thoughts. Faust hears them with bitterness: ‘Vains échos de la joie humaine, passez votre chemin’. In the first version of Faust, Gounod composed a trio (‘À l’étude, ô mon maître’) for his antihero, and his students Siebel and Wagner; the young men are leaving because they do not want to waste their youth. An elegant piece, it gives Faust motivation for his infernal bargain. The Devil appears (‘Me voici!’), and Faust signs his soul away. With his new ‘friend’, he sings a lively duet anticipating the lusts he will enjoy (‘A moi les plaisirs’).

ACT II : The Kermesse

At the town gates, in the middle of a jubilant crowd of students and townsfolk, soldiers and young girls. Valentin, Marguerite’s brother, a soldier, is leaving to fight in the wars, but Siébel promises to watch over the girl. Suddenly, Méphistophèles appears in the middle of the fair; he sings, tells each person’s future, makes wine spurt out of an inn sign, and toasts Marguerite. Her brother, Valentin, quarrels with Méphistophèles, but his sword breaks; with its pieces, Valentin forms the sign of the cross, and the Devil recoils. The folk dance a waltz; Faust approaches Marguerite, but she modestly refuses his advances.

A really brilliant, toe-tapping chorus (‘Vin ou bière’) opens the act. “Full of relief, contrast, picturesque, melody,” wrote D’Ortigue (Le Ménestrel), “this admirably processed piece has an indescribable effect. It will be encored every evening; if the work has 200 performances, this sextuple chorus will have been heard 400 times.”

Valentin’s famous aria, Avant de quitter ces lieux’, was written for an 1864 London performance, using a theme from the prelude. It’s a beautiful piece, and one I could sing at one time! Gounod, though, regretted it, and it was not performed in Paris until late last century.

Then comes Méphistophèles’s Golden Calf Ronde, ‘Le veau d’or’, a devilishly catchy tune, and one of my favourite pieces. (Gounod had originally written a Ronde du Scarabée.)

The students confront the Devil in a magnificent, Meyerbeerian ensemble (Choral des Épées), ‘De l’enfer qui vient émousser nos armes’; Valentin’s phrase ‘C’est une croix’ is glorious.

There is Faust’s hesitant encounter with Marguerite. Sauguet thought the few bars describing their meeting were “in their simplicity and their modesty, of an exquisite sensitivity, all imbued with an incomparable natural freshness: Gounod speaks here as only he knew how to do it”. The act ends with a delightful waltz, ‘Ainsi que la brise légère’.  

ACT III : Marguerite’s garden

Siebel, in love with Marguerite, has come to leave flowers for Marguerite, but Méphistophélès leaves a box full of jewels on the threshold. Neglecting the flowers, but seduced by the sight of the treasures, Marguerite adorns herself with necklaces and bracelets. Méphistophélès waylays her neighbour, the elderly Dame Marthe, while Faust approaches Marguerite. The couple declare their love; Marguerite retires, and sings alone at her window; Faust rushes toward her, and Méphistophèles walks away, cackling.

The Garden quartet, press illustration, 1859. Source: Gallica.

Siebel’s romance ‘Faites-lui mes aveux’ is a minor number, but what a delightful earworm of a tune it is! “An ariette that could not be more tender, lively and graceful,” thought d’Ortigue. Later critics were severe: Jean Chantavoine (1948) considered them mediocre, Max d’Ollone (1953) acknowledged the harmonic finesse and Lied flavour, but considered them an hors d’oeuvre written to lengthen the role.

Then comes Faust’s famous Cavatine, ‘Salut! demeure chaste et pure’, “dreamy and passionate,” as d’Ortigue said. Berlioz was deeply touched by it: “It’s a beautiful feeling, very true and very deep.” The tenor’s phrase (“contemplative, of intimate and restrained warmth”) and violin solo, Paul Landormy (1930) wrote, are supported by a four-part harmony “whose ease and ingenuity inevitably bring to mind the transparent limpidity of Mozart’s string quartets and quintets”.

And here we are at Marguerite’s famous Jewel Song! It is a soprano scene in two parts. Sitting at her spinning-wheel, she sings the Chanson du Roi de Thulé, a mediaeval ballad composed on Gregorian harmonies, but she breaks off the song to think about the handsome man she met at the fair. Then l’Air des Bijoux, ‘Ah! je ris de me voir si belle dans ce miroir’! One of the most famous arias in all opera, it is a brilliant showpiece for the soprano, full of melody and warmth, as well as virtuosity. It is, Landormy wrote, “a waltz, a light, laughing waltz, full of youth and life, a waltz of very diverse expression”.

Then the exquisite quartet, ‘Prenez mon bras un moment !’. Gounod admirably describes Faust’s ardent wooing, Marguerite’s timidity, Marthe’s desperation, and Méphistophèles’s cynical amusement (‘Cette vieille impitoyable … Allait épouser le diable!’).

Musicians admired it since the first production; Berlioz called it the summit of the score. “Everything is very fresh, very true, well felt… Nothing sweeter than the vocal harmony, except for the veiled orchestration that accompanies it. This charming half-tone, this musical moonlight caresses the listener, fascinates him, gradually charms him, and fills him with an emotion that grows until the end. And this admirable page is crowned by a monologue by Marguerite at her window, in which the young girl’s passion bursts out in great eloquence.”

D’Ollone thought that even in Mozart‘s work, there was not more (or even, as much) variety in the characters, balance in the construction of the piece and the voices, or a more pervasive tenderness.

In a lovely orchestral phrase, Méphistophèles transforms the garden into a bower of roses and lilies.

Finally, Gounod composes the best love duet since Les Huguenots (1836); of all love duets that follow it, only Tristan Act II is a serious challenger. It is, of course, modelled on Meyerbeer’s great example: a multi-section, extended piece rising to impassioned, ecstatic lyricism and ending in the abrupt parting of the lovers. But Gounod brings new colours, new emotions, new sensuality to it. “It gives us an agonizing vertigo and leaves us annihilated, disintegrated, as under the influence of a marvelous poison,” wrote d’Ollone nearly a century later. For Sauguet, this “suite of passionate melodies and infinite tenderness” was “a true language of lovers, much closer to the intimate melody than to the opera aria, and whose charm always works, as their subtle fragrance is good and pure.”

ACT IV: The town (with church)

A year later. Marguerite, abandoned by Faust, has given birth to a baby; in vain Siebel seeks to comfort her. Marguerite enters the church to pray, but demoniacal voices frighten her. Seized with remorse, overwhelmed by Méphistophèles’s predictions of eternal damnation, she collapses.

The church, Paris Opéra, 1869. Source: Gallica.

Valentin returns from the wars, and learns of his sister’s disgrace. Faust, ashamed at deserting Marguerite, wants to see her again, but does not dare knock at her door. To make her appear, Méphistophèles sings a sérénade outside her window. Valentin demands explanations; he and Faust fight a duel; and Méphistophèles mortally wounds him. His sister begs his forgiveness, but Valentin curses her, then dies.

The duel, Paris Opéra, 1869. Source: Gallica.

Marguerite’s spinning scene is often cut; Gounod originally composed a Romance for Siébel, ‘Versez vos chagrins dans mon âme’.

The Church Scene is one of the most terrifying, imaginative tableaux in all opera. The awesome power of the organ, the double choruses of demons and penitents, the anguished prayer of the heroine, all these make a tremendous effect. “The originality and the power of its musical substance incline some to regret Marguerite’s surge of faith which, towards the end, brings a moment of relaxation,” wrote d’Ollone. “They are wrong. Gounod assures us that this prayer will be answered. This melodic effusion in no way weakens the scene, which ends, with Marguerite fainting, without compassionate musical commentary, for the curtain drops over the distant sounds of the organ, foreign to the drama.”

The next scene begins with the famous Soldiers’ Chorus, ‘Gloire immortelle de nos aïeux’, written for an opera of Ivan le Terrible, and introduced at Carvalho’s behest. Gounod had originally written couplets for Valentin: ‘Chaque jour, nouvelle affaire!’.

Then Méphistophèles’s well-known Sérénade, ‘Vous qui faites l’endormie’, “a masterpiece of wit, colour, and fantasy” (Landormy) – a good melody, a sarcastic warning to young maidens, and punctuated by bursts of diabolical laughter.

The duel trio is splendidly energetic, although modelled on the Huguenots septet. The Death of Valentin makes a superb finale; the phrase ‘Pardonne, si tu veux être un jour pardonné!’ is wonderful.


Walpurgisnacht in the Harz Mountains. Méphistophèles leads Faust to hell to show him the riches of his empire. But, in the middle of a hellish feast, when, captivated by the beauty of the courtesans, the doctor holds out his cup to cupbearers, the spirit of Marguerite appears to his eyes.

Walpurgisnacht, Théâtre-Lyrique, 1859. Source: Gallica.
A Romantic vision of Walpurgisnacht, Paris Opéra, 1869. Source: Gallica.

In a fit of madness, Marguerite has killed her baby; she will be executed at dawn. Faust wants to rescue her. Awoken by Faust’s voice, Marguerite is delirious with love, until Méphistophèles appears and insists they leave at once. At the sight of the Devil, Marguerite is terrified, and refuses to go. She turns to God in a mystical imploration, praying for forgiveness; Marguerite dies, and her redeemed soul soars to the heavens. Faust kneels in despair, and Méphistophélès retreats before an Archangel brandishing a flaming sword.

The prison, design sketch, 1859. Source: Gallica.

The whole Walpurgisnacht scene is something of a divertissement; in the 1869 Opéra version, it was the excuse for the ballet.

Those tunes are well known, and attractive (it culminates in a barnstorming Danse de Phryné), but the scene also contains a glorious orchestral phrase where Méphistophèles reveals the wonders of the ancient queens and queans.

There are echoes of Weber’s Freischütz, too, in the chorus of Willis and the ‘Hou! Hou!’. For the original version, Gounod wrote a Chant bachique (‘Doux nectar’) and an exciting Choeur des sorcières (‘Un, deux et trois’).

The Prison Scène is altogether more dramatic. Gounod had originally written a Mad Scene for Marguerite; this has been lost. Instead, there is a duet (‘Ah! c’est la voix du bien-aimé’) for the reunited lovers, with reminiscences of their meeting at the Kermesse and the garden scene. (As Giroud points out, Massenet in Manon and Puccini in La Bohème learnt from Gounod here.)

The opera ends with a Trio for devil, tenor, and soprano (which evokes Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable) and the apotheosis of Marguerite, with a chorus of angels singing an Easter hymn.

The Bru Zane version restores Gounod’s original intentions, including a glorious passage of bells. This is truly sublime, and almost reaches the heights of Mahler II.

And so ends my favourite opera. À moi, Satan!

(There’s scratching at the door. I’ll go and let the dog in. Oh, it’s a black poodle…)

Works consulted

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