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Faust: In Focus

Charles Gounod
Libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, based on Carré’s play Faust et Marguerite and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, Part 1

Premiere: Théâtre Lyrique, Paris, 1859
One of many adaptations of the old story of an aged philosopher’s pact with the devil, Faust is loosely based on Goethe’s epic drama of the same name. The philosophical issues of the play are largely jettisoned in favor of a story whose most immediate concern is the tension between the longing for youth and love and the desire for salvation. Faust was a moderate success at its premiere, but was subsequently reworked and enlarged, and its wealth of melody made it extraordinarily popular throughout the opera world—too popular, perhaps, for its own standing in critical and intellectual circles, where it came to be seen as a crowd-pleasing, oversimplified adaptation of a towering work of literature. Today that view has largely abated, and the opera can be appreciated for its sheer beauty, its straightforward presentation of timeless human themes, and its opportunities for superb and exciting singing.

The Creators
Charles Gounod (1818–1893) showed early promise as a musician and achieved commercial success with Faust. His opera Roméo et Juliette (1867) was equally well received in its day and remains in the repertory. Among his most famous works is a setting of the Ave Maria based on a piece by J. S. Bach. Later in life he composed several oratorios. Jules Barbier (1825–1901) and Michel Carré (1821–1872) were the leading librettists of their time in France, providing the text for many other successful operas, including Roméo for Gounod, Mignon (also from Goethe) and Hamlet for Ambroise Thomas, and Les Contes d’Hoffmann for Jacques Offenbach. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) is the preeminent figure of German literature. The author of Faust and The Sorrows of Young Werther (the source for an opera by Massenet), he was also a well- regarded authority on philosophy, art, and especially music.

The Setting
The traditional setting for Faust is 16th-century Germany, a time when alchemists and philosophers were familiar characters in real life. Des McAnuff’s Met production places the action in the first half of the 20th century.

The Music
The score is replete with the elegance and romanticism of mid-19th century French opera—notably in the beautiful prelude and in the ballet music in Act V (which is often omitted but largely restored in this production). Gounod’s talent for religious music is apparent in the magnificent chorale invoked against the devil’s power in Act II and, by way of parody, in the devil’s own music that oppresses Marguerite in the church scene in Act IV. The chorus is featured prominently and in very different ways throughout the opera, from the rousing and unforgettable Soldiers’ Chorus in Act IV to the ethereal singing of the angels in the finale. But it is the diverse music for the lead roles that has assured this opera’s place in the repertory. Their solos are among the most cherished in opera: the tenor’s lyrical greeting of his beloved’s humble home in Act III ("Salut! demeure chaste et pure"); the bass-baritone’s infernal drinking song in Act II ("Le veau d’or") and his ribald, mocking laughing song in Act IV ("Vous qui faites l’endormie"); the baritone’s ravishing farewell aria in Act II ("Avant de quitter ses lieux"); and above all the soprano’s coloratura extravaganza, the famous Jewel Song in Act III ("Ah! Je ris de me voir si belle"). The inherent beauty and charm of these solos often disguise their technical difficulty—each of them requires an extraordinary level of breath control and musical taste to be brought to life. This becomes even more pronounced in the memorable passages for multiple voices, such as the Act III quartet, which deftly combines romantic and comic elements, and most notably in the soaring trio for soprano, tenor, and bass that forms the opera’s musical and dramatic climax.

Faust at the Met
The first Metropolitan Opera House, on Broadway and 39th Street, opened with a performance of Faust, sung in Italian, on October 22, 1883. The work remained the most frequently heard opera at the Met well into the 20th century. Between 1886 and 1889 it was performed in German, then reverted to Italian and finally to the original French. An 1891 tour performance in Chicago for the first time brought together the impressive lineup of Emma Eames (Marguerite) and brothers Jean (Faust) and Edouard de Reszke (Méphistophélès). Jean de Reszke went on to sing the title role 71 times at the Met, while Edouard performed the part of the devil an astounding 112 times through 1903. The other great Méphistophélès of this era was Pol Plançon, who appeared 85 times between 1893 and 1908. Designer Joseph Urban and conductor Pierre Monteux made their joint Met debuts with a new production in 1917 that starred Geraldine Farrar and Giovanni Martinelli. Among the artists who appeared in this version over the following decades were Licia Albanese, Dorothy Kirsten, Frank Guarrera, and Ezio Pinza. It was replaced in 1953 by the debut production of Peter Brook, designed by Rolf Gérard and again conducted by Monteux, with Jussi Björling, Victoria de los Angeles, and Robert Merrill as Valentin. Opening night of 1965 witnessed the debut Met production of Jean-Louis Barrault, who directed Nicolai Gedda, Gabriella Tucci, and Cesare Siepi, with Georges Prêtre on the podium. Harold Prince made his Met debut with a 1990 production that featured Neil Shicoff, Carol Vaness, and James Morris. In 2005 director Andrei Serban and Met Music Director James Levine helmed another new staging that starred Roberto Alagna, Soile Isokoski, René Pape, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. The current production by Des McAnuff opened November 29, 2011, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting Jonas Kaufmann, Marina Poplavskaya, and Pape in the leading roles.