Charles Gounod said he had read Goethe’s “Faust” at age 20. By the time he had seen his short-lived “Sapho” on the stage, he was determined to give the story, at least the First Part, a musical setting. By chance the librettist of “Sapho” introduced him to the librettist Jules Barbier, who just by chance happened to have a version of “Faust” that he had offered to Meyerbeer, who happened to turn it down as a desecration of the German masterpiece. Gounod could not believe his luck
However Barbier’s libretto was based on a play “Faust and Marguerite” by a certain Michele Carré, whose permission was necessary. Although he provided the words to only two of the songs (“The King of Thule” and “The Calf of Gold”), Carré always appears as co-librettist. All this aside, the Opera turned Gounod’s score down, but a smaller, less grandiose theater accepted it. Opening was delayed a year because of a similar work being given elsewhere; and it was during this year that Gounod learned more of the craft of preparing an opera as opposed to cantatas and other vocal but static forms of music.
Like “Carmen” after it, the original “Faust” was given with spoken dialogue between the concerted numbers. But once it caught on all over Europe, Gounod scored the dialogue as recite and that is pretty much the opera as we know it today.
When English baritone Charles Santley became enamored of the role of Valentine, Marguerite’s brother, he wanted the role built up and asked Gounod for an aria in the Fair Scene based on the lovely melody heard in the prelude. Gounod obliged—for which every baritone afterwards should be grateful—and an English critic supplied the lyrics that begin with “Even bravest heart may swell.” Now (and this might be a “oner” in the history of opera) French words had to be supplied for non-English performances; and that is how the lovely “Avant de quitter ces lieux” came to be!
As for the opera itself, the philosophy of Goethe’s First Part is boiled down to a few minutes of “qvetching” in Faust’s opening monologue. (A long scene with Wagner was cut out earlier in the opera’s career.) By the time Mephistopheles conjures up the image of Marguerite some 20 minutes into the First Act, we know this will be a love story with supernatural overtones.
In fact, the Devil himself becomes little more than the Trickster figure of folklore. In this opera, his powers seem to be confined to conjuring up images (although he is unable to prevent Faust from seeing an image of the condemned Gretchen during the Walpurgis Night sequence), making wine flow from statues, and making himself surrounded by a force field when threatened by the crowd’s drawn swords. Unlike the seemingly more potent demons of modern films, this one cringes when the swords are inverted as crosses (a good director can get around this), although the crowd seems completely to forget about him seconds later.
But whatever his potential powers may be, the music has him a Charmer. I think only the French baritones on the very old recordings—Marcel Journet for example—capture that oily spirit that Gounod seems to want. The roaring Devils brought in by Chaliapin and his basso-profundo successors seem to miss the point entirely. Those who saw Gustav Grundigs play the role back in the 1940s or heard his recording of the part will see what I mean.
With the diminution of Mephisto’s character, there is also the excision of the Witches’ Kitchen scene, most of the Walpurgis Night, and all the off-stage choruses of Spirits (except in the Church Scene). In short, this is a pretty sanitized version of the play and it makes sense that Faust should be damned at the end, since the point of view of mid-19th century French Catholics and the audiences would have expected no less a punishment. Modern audiences might wonder what all the fuss is about and claim “She could have said No” at least or “So what did she do so wrong?” at the most.
Faust himself, as I suggested, is a pallid copy of the original and exists only as an operatic tenor. Marguerite is “too virginal for words,” but her lack of depth is redeemed by her soaring melody at the end of the prison scene that is so theatrically effective. In fact the only believable character is Martha, the soprano’s earthy guardian who is willing to marry the Devil himself once she learns she is a widow.
In short, the mighty First Part of the Goethe work is boiled down to a boy meets girl story that was quite acceptable to the audiences of the time who considered going to the theater a social and not a cultural event. But it might be informative to take a peek into Edith Wharton’s New York world a few generations later and see her comments in “The Age of Innocence” about a performance attended by the hero of the novel:
She sang, of course, “M’ama” and not “He loves me,” since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.
That leaves little more for me to say other than we will take a look at Boito in our next essay.