PRELUDE The orchestral prelude to Faust is in two segments. The first part depicts the aged Faust (whom we will meet shortly as the curtain rises), who has spent his entire lonely life in science, prayer, and faith, brooding over his lot. The key is F minor and the texture of the music is contrapuntal, reflecting this gloomy, depressing mood. The second part of the prelude, completely changes the mood and gives us an instrumental preview of Valentin’s great aria, “Avant de quitter ce lieux” in Act I, Scene 2 when he bids farewell to his sister before going off to war. (See Musical Highlight The World Right Side Up). The prelude closes with a few quiet, almost religious chords.
ACT I Faust’s laboratory. Faust, an old man, has spent decades in the study of science. Looking back over his life, he feels himself to be a failure and is on the verge of suicide. When he hears young voices outside, he recalls his own youthful dreams. In a fit of fury, he calls out to the devil himself—and the devil appears! Méphistophélès offers Faust youth and pleasure in exchange for his soul, but only when he also promises the love of the beautiful young Marguerite does Faust accept the deal. He returns to his youth.
ACT II At the inn. As a crowd gathers, Valentin, a young officer, prepares to set off to war, asking a comrade, Siébel, to watch over his sister Marguerite. The townspeople’s merriment is heightened when Méphistophélès appears, energizing the crowd with a song celebrating the Biblical Golden Calf—a traditional symbol of greed and idolatry. He then pours free wine for everybody and begins to tell fortunes: Wagner will be killed in his first battle, the flowers Siébel picks for Marguerite will wither, and Valentin will meet his death at the hands of someone close to Méphistophélès. Outraged to hear the stranger offer a toast to his sister, Valentin challenges Méphistophélès to a duel, but the devil magically snaps the soldier’s sword in two. Faust manages to catch Marguerite’s eye, but she turns him away.
ACT III Outside Marguerite’s house. Siébel, who is in love with Marguerite, tries to collect a bouquet for her, but every flower he touches withers—until he dips the hand cursed by Méphistophélès in holy water. He shyly leaves the bouquet for Marguerite to find. Faust and Méphistophélès have been watching, and Méphistophélès leaves behind a box of jewels to outshine Siébel’s meager gift. Marguerite appears, admitting to herself that beneath her cool exterior, she has been moved by her meeting with Faust. She finds the jewels and tries them on, imagining how Faust would admire her if he could see. Faust does see, of course, and, emerging from his hiding place, tries to seduce Marguerite. Méphistophélès, meanwhile, flirts with her neighbor, Marthe. Faust is beginning to fall in love and respectfully says good night, promising to return to Marguerite the next day. Méphistophélès will have none of this delay. He draws Faust’s attention to Marguerite’s own thoughts of love, then laughs with derision as Faust and Marguerite are drawn irresistibly together.
ACT IV Inside Marguerite’s house. Months later, Marguerite is pregnant and hopeless. Faust, the father of the child, has disappeared.
The inn. Valentin and his comrades return from the war. Concerned about how Valentin will react to the news of Marguerite’s pregnancy, Siébel tries to stop him from entering her house, but Valentin persists.
Outside Marguerite’s house. Méphistophélès wants to hurry off to Walpurgis Night but the regretful Faust lingers, yearning for a glimpse of Marguerite. Valentin appears, having now learned of Faust and his sister’s liaison, and challenges Faust to a duel. With the help of Méphistophélès, Faust strikes a fatal blow. The townspeople call upon Valentin to forgive Marguerite but he curses his sister and dies.
The church. Marguerite seeks shelter in a church. Méphistophélès and his minions appear, trying to impede her prayers. As Marguerite and a chorus of priests call on God for salvation, the devil mocks her as a libertine and damns her to hell.
ACT V Walpurgis Night. The Walpurgis Night revels unfold, with Méphistophélès and Faust surrounded by demons. Faust is shown a vision of Marguerite: she has been imprisoned for infanticide and gone insane. Faust insists Méphistophélès bring him to her.
The prison. With Méphistophélès’s assistance—whether in sympathy or with more treachery in mind—Faust attempts to save Marguerite. She lovingly recalls the night they met but panics at the sight of Méphistophélès, realizing that Faust is in alliance with the devil. With a frantic appeal to heaven, she dies. Méphistophélès damns her but angelic voices proclaim she is saved.