Gounod's Faust

Charles Gounod, drawing by Ingres

Charles-François Gounod (1818-1893) was a French composer of church music and operas. He was first urged to write for the theater by the mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot-Garcia (the lover of Russian writer Ivan Turgenev!). Seven of his operas were written with the librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. These were his librettists for his most famous opera, Faust (1859). Barbier and Carré based their version on Goethe's play, originally only the first part. They later added Act V of the opera, which includes episodes from the second part. When Gounod died in 1893, the opera had been performed over a thousand times in Paris. Gounod's Faust was in the repertoire of the Bolshoi Theater, where Bulgakov saw it many times. Faust is sung by a tenor, Méphistophélès by a bass.

Act I. Faust's study. The aged philosopher-magician, completely disillusioned, is ready for death. He is about to drink poison and is temporarily distracted by offstage choruses of girls and men estolling life and love and God. Faust utters curses and calls for Satan's help.

Léon Rothier as Méphistophélès
 "Me voici" [Here I am] comes the answer. The demon describes his costume, which includes a sword, a plumed hat, and a rich cloak.

Faust is at first indifferent to the riches offered him; he wants only the pleasures of youth. Méphistophélès persuades him to sign a binding contract by showing him a vision of the young Marguerite. The contract stipulates that Faust will be master on earth, but will revert to Hell's slavery after a certain time. Faust drinks a potion and becomes young again. The two depart for their fantastic adventures.

Act II. A fair at a city marketplace. The student Wagner sings a short solo in praise of drink; the soldiers, old men, girls and youths join in. Valentin enters, looking at an amulet given to him by his sister Marguerite to keep him from harm in the war he is about to fight in. Valentin is worried about leaving Marguerite alone, but the love-smitten youth Siébel promises to look after her. Valentin sings the aria "Avant de quitter ces lieux" [Before leaving this place], then Wagner leads the crowd in "The Song of the Rat." But a stranger interrupts.

M. N. Engel'-Kron as Valentin in the 1900s
(From Kiev Mikhaila Bulgakova, 147)

It is Méphistophélès, who sways the crowd with the "Calf of Gold" aria, then reads Wagner's palm, predicting early death. He viciously informs Siébel that flowers will wither in his grasp. Valentin comes forward, to be told he will be killed. Méphistophélès tries the wine, but spits it out and magically produces his own. He toasts Marguerite, ignoring Valentin's anger, and all the others draw their swords. Méphistophélès inscribes a circle around himself with his sword, which breaks Valentin's at the first attack. Now realizing the evil force among them, the men reverse their swords so the hilts becom crosses. The Devil cowers.
The crowd disperses, and Méphistophélès is joined by Faust, who is impatient to join Marguerite. Now the crowd returns, having forgotten the sinister incident, and indulges in a merry waltz. As Marguerite enters, Siébel tries to approach her, but is brushed aside by Méphistophélès. Faust offers her his arm, but she modestly disclaims any need for an escort. Faust is crestfallen, but Méphistophélès promises him eventual success. The crowd soon resumes the dance.

Act III. Siébel, troubled by the stranger's prophecy, tries it out in Marguerite's garden. His song dedicates the flowers to his beloved, but they do indeed wither in his hand. Dipping his fingers in holy water under a shrine to the Virgin, he finds he can pluck a fresh bouquet safely, and leaves it for Marguerite. The Devil, watching, runs off to get a richer gift, leaving Faust to contemplate in ecstasy the house of his loved one in the aria "Salut, demeure chaste et pure" [Hail thou dwelling chaste and pure]. Satan returns with a casket of jewels. Faust, touched by Marguerite's innocence, draws Méphistophélès away.
Marguerite enters, distracted by remembering the handsome stranger. She sings a ballad, "The King of Thule." As she ends her song, she notices the flowers and the jewel box. Surprise gives way to curiosity, and curiosity to experiment. She bedecks herself, happy at the beauty in the mirror she finds in the casket. This is the brilliant "Jewel Song." Marthe, an older duenna or neighbor, enters. Faust and Méphistophélès return, and Faust woos his chosen lady while the Devil tries to distract the older woman. Méphistophélès escapes Marthe and calls on the night to work its magic. The lovers grow more ardent, and Marguerite plucks daisy petals with the inevitable result: "He loves me!" She suddenly recovers her modest demeanor, and sends Faust away. But he, egged on by the Devil, returns to her as she appears languishing in her window. The Devil's mocking laughter accompanies the final music.

Act IV. Marguerite, at her spinning wheel, mourns the departure of her lover. Behind the scene, a chorus of girls mocks her situation. Siébel comes to comfort her and sings of his love. Marguerite goes to church to pray for her unborn child. In the church, it is the Devil who confronts the sinner, denying her the solace of prayer. Choruses of demons and priests vie for her soul, but Méphistophélès has the last word.
In the last scene, before Marguerite's house, the soldiers gather, triumphantly singing of their return from the war. Siébel evades Valentin's questions about Marguerite, and the brother rushes into the house. Méphistophélès and Faust come upon the scene, Faust remorseful, but the Devil arrogantly singing a mocking serenade. This brings Valentin to the door. A trio precedes the inevitable duel: Valentin vengeful, Faust sympathetic, Méphistophélès rejoicing in the (to him) known outcome. The Devil makes sure Faust's blade finds Valentin's heart, then the two miscreants flee. The crowd gathers, parting to allow Marguerite to fall beside her brother. Dying, he curses her.

Act V. The revels of Walpurgis Night, the eve of May 1, on the Brocken, highest peak. In a lush landscape, Faust is introduced to legendary courtesans: Aspasia, Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, Lais, Phryne, and Astarte. In the midst of an ensuing orgy, the vision of Marguerite appears to Faust, a thin red line around her throat, as if drawn by a knife. He demands to be taken to her.
Méphistophélès and Faust find Marguerite in prison, where she has been immured for killing her child. There is little time to rescue her before the gallows claim her. At first she is happy to see her lover, but immediately she sinks into a daze, and recoils violently when she sees the Devil in the shadows. As she calls on the angels for help, the grand trio begins, the voices mounting higher and higher, Faust despairing, Méphistophélès impatient, Marguerite supplicating. When the climax is reached, the heavens open to receive Marguerite's soul. Faust's fate is left uncertain; presumably he keeps his bargain with the Devil, though some productions hint that he shares Marguerite's redemption.

Adapted from Quaintance Eaton, Opera: A Pictorial Guide (NY: Abaris, 1980).