Faust (opera)

This article is about the opera by Charles Gounod. For the opera (légende dramatique) by Hector Berlioz, see La damnation de Faust. For other works, see Works based on Faust.

Faust is a grand opera in five acts by Charles Gounod to a French libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré from Carré's play Faust et Marguerite, in turn loosely based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust, Part 1. It debuted at the Théâtre Lyrique on the Boulevard du Temple in Paris on 19 March 1859, with influential sets designed by Charles-Antoine Cambon and Joseph Thierry (Act I and Act III, scene 1), Jean Émile Daran (Act II), Édouard Desplechin (Act III, scene 2; Act V), and Philippe Chaperon (Act IV).

Performance history

Miolan-Carvalho as Marguerite (1860)

Faust was rejected by the Paris Opera, on the grounds that it was not sufficiently "showy", and its appearance at the Théâtre-Lyrique was delayed for a year because Adolphe d'Ennery's drama Faust was playing at the Porte Saint-Martin. The manager Léon Carvalho (who cast his wife Marie Miolan-Carvalho as Marguerite) insisted on various changes during production, including cutting several numbers.

Faust was not initially well received. The publisher Antoine Choudens, who purchased the copyright for 10,000 francs, took the work (with added recitatives replacing the original spoken dialogue) on tour through Germany, Belgium, Italy and England, with Marie Miolan-Carvalho repeating her role.

It was revived in Paris in 1862, and was a hit. A ballet had to be inserted before the work could be played at the Opéra in 1869: it became the most frequently performed opera at that house and a staple of the international repertory, which it remained for decades, being translated into at least 25 languages. The first Opéra production of Faust had settings by Jean-Baptiste Lavastre and Édouard Desplechin (Act I, scene 1; Acts II and V), Charles-Antoine Cambon (Acts I, scene 2; Act III; Act IV, scene 3), and Auguste-Alfred Rubé and Philippe Chaperon (Act IV), with costumes by Paul Lormier. The Palais Garnier's first-generation staging, premiered on 6 September 1875, was directed by Léon Carvalho, with sets by Charles-Antoine Cambon and Jean Émile Daran (Acts I and III), Jean-Baptiste Lavastre and Édouard Desplechin (Acts II and V), and Auguste-Alfred Rubé and Philippe Chaperon (Act IV). Further notable revivals at the Opéra took place on 4 December 1893 (stage director: Lapissida; sets by Carpezat, Rubé & Chaperon, Cornil, and Fromont) and 25 January 1908 (stage director: Paul Stuart; costumes by Joseph Pinchon; sets by Carpezat, Amable & Cioccari, Simas, Jambon & Bailly, and Ronsin).

The popularity of "Faust" has declined somewhat, beginning around 1950. A full production, with its large chorus and elaborate sets and costumes, is an expensive and time-consuming undertaking, particularly if the act 5 ballet is included. However, it appears as number 35 on the Operabase list of the most-performed operas worldwide.[1]

It was Faust with which the Metropolitan Opera in New York City opened for the first time on 22 October 1883. It is the eighth most frequently performed opera there, with 747 performances through the 2011-2012 season. It was not until the period between 1965 and 1977 that the full version was performed (and then with some minor cuts), and all performances in that production included the Walpurgisnacht and the ballet.[2]


The vision of Marguerite as staged at Covent Garden in 1864 with Jean-Baptiste Faure as Méphistophélès and Giovanni Mario as Faust
Role Voice type Premiere cast, 19 March 1859
(Conductor: Adolphe Deloffre)
Faust, a philosopher and metaphysician tenor Joseph-Théodore-Désiré Barbot
Méphistophélès, a familiar spirit of hell bass-baritone Émile Balanqué
Marguerite, a young maiden soprano Marie Caroline Miolan-Carvalho
Valentin, a soldier, Marguerite's brother baritone Osmond Raynal
Wagner, friend of Valentin baritone M. Cibot
Siébel, a youth, in love with Marguerite mezzo-soprano or soprano
(breeches role)
Amélie Faivre
Marthe Schwertlein, Marguerite's guardian mezzo-soprano or contralto Duclos
Young girls, labourers, students, soldiers, burghers, matrons, invisible demons,
church choir, witches, queens and courtesans of antiquity, celestial voices


Place: Germany
Time: 16th century

Act 1

Faust's cabinet

Faust: "O merveille! ... A moi les plaisirs"
Méphistophélès (Marcel Journet) gives Faust (Enrico Caruso) a glimpse of Marguerite, and he signs the contract with the Devil, and heads out with him to experience the world, in this 1910 recording of the act 1 finale.

"Le veau d'or"
Méphistophélès, act 2, performed by Feodor Chaliapin

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Faust, an aging scholar, determines that his studies have come to nothing and have only caused him to miss out on life and love (Rien! En vain j'interroge). He attempts to kill himself (twice) with poison but stops each time when he hears a choir. He curses science and faith, and asks for infernal guidance. Méphistophélès appears (duet: Me voici) and, with a tempting image of Marguerite at her spinning wheel, persuades Faust to buy Méphistophélès's services on earth in exchange for Faust's in Hell. Faust's goblet of poison is magically transformed into an elixir of youth, making the aged doctor a handsome young gentleman; the strange companions then set out into the world.

Act 2

At the city gates

A chorus of students, soldiers and villagers sings a drinking song (Vin ou Bière). Valentin, leaving for war with his friend Wagner, entrusts the care of his sister Marguerite to his youthful friend Siébel (O sainte médaille ... Avant de quitter ces lieux). Méphistophélès appears, provides the crowd with wine, and sings a rousing, irreverent song about the Golden Calf (Le veau d'or). Méphistophélès maligns Marguerite, and Valentin tries to strike him with his sword, which shatters in the air. Valentin and friends use the cross-shaped hilts of their swords to fend off what they now know is an infernal power (chorus: De l'enfer). Méphistophélès is joined by Faust and the villagers in a waltz (Ainsi que la brise légère). Marguerite appears and Faust declares his admiration, but she refuses Faust's arm out of modesty.

Act 3

Marguerite's garden in the original production, set design by Édouard Desplechin.

Marguerite's garden

The lovesick boy Siébel leaves a bouquet for Marguerite (Faites-lui mes aveux). Faust sends Méphistophélès in search of a gift for Marguerite and sings a cavatina (Salut, demeure chaste et pure) idealizing Marguerite as a pure child of nature. Méphistophélès brings in a decorated box containing exquisite jewelry and a hand mirror and leaves it on Marguerite's doorstep, next to Siébel's flowers. Marguerite enters, pondering her encounter with Faust at the city gates, and sings a melancholy ballad about the King of Thule (Il était un roi de Thulé). Marthe, Marguerite's neighbour, notices the jewellery and says it must be from an admirer. Marguerite tries on the jewels and is captivated by how they enhance her beauty, as she sings in the famous aria, the Jewel Song (Ah! je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir). Méphistophélès and Faust join the women in the garden and romance them. Marguerite allows Faust to kiss her (Laisse-moi, laisse-moi contempler ton visage), but then asks him to go away. She sings at her window for his quick return, and Faust, listening, returns to her. Under the watchful eye and malevolent laughter of Méphistophélès, it is clear that Faust's seduction of Marguerite will be successful.

Act 4

"Vous qui faites l'endormie"
Méphistophélès, act 4, performed by Feodor Chaliapin

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Marguerite's room / A public square outside her house / A cathedral

[Note: The scenes of acts 4 are sometimes given in a different order and portions are sometimes shortened or cut in performance.][3]

Marguerite prays in the cathedral, set design by Charles-Antoine Cambon
Feodor Chaliapin as Méphistophélès, 1915

After being made pregnant and abandoned by Faust, Marguerite has given birth and is a social outcast. She sings an aria at her spinning wheel (Il ne revient pas). Siébel stands by her. The scene shifts to the square outside Marguerite's house. Valentin's company returns from the war to a military march (Deposons les armes and Gloire immortelle de nos aïeux, the well-known "soldiers' chorus"). Siébel asks Valentin to forgive Marguerite. Valentin rushes to her cottage. While he is inside Faust and Méphistophélès appear, and Méphistophélès, thinking that only Marguerite is there, sings a mocking burlesque of a lover's serenade under Marguerite's window (Vous qui faites l'endormie). Valentin comes out of the cottage, now knowing that Faust has debauched his sister. The three men fight, Méphistophélès blocking Valentin's sword, allowing Faust to make the fatal thrust. With his dying breath Valentin blames Marguerite for his death and condemns her to Hell before the assembled townspeople (Ecoute-moi bien Marguerite). Marguerite goes to the church and tries to pray there but is stopped, first by Méphistophélès and then by a choir of devils. She finishes her prayer but faints when she is cursed again by Méphistophélès.

Act 5

The Harz mountains on Walpurgis Night / A cavern / The interior of a prison

Méphistophélès and Faust are surrounded by witches (Un, deux et trois). Faust is transported to a cave of queens and courtesans, and Méphistophélès promises to provide Faust with the love of the greatest and most beautiful women in history. An orgiastic ballet suggests the revelry that continues throughout the night. As dawn approaches, Faust sees a vision of Marguerite and calls for her. Méphistophélès helps Faust enter the prison where Marguerite is being held for killing her child. They sing a love duet (Oui, c'est toi que j'aime). Méphistophélès states that only a mortal hand can deliver Marguerite from her fate, and Faust offers to rescue her from the hangman, but she prefers to trust her fate to God and His angels (Anges purs, anges radieux). At the end she asks why Faust's hands are covered in blood, pushes him away, and falls down motionless. Méphistophélès curses, as a voice on high sings "Sauvée!" ("Saved!"). The bells of Easter sound and a chorus of angels sings "Christ est ressuscité!" ('"Christ is risen!"). The walls of the prison open, and Marguerite's soul rises to heaven. In despair Faust follows it with his eyes; he falls to his knees and prays. Méphistophélès is turned away by the shining sword of the archangel.[4]

In other art forms

Parts of the opera have seeped into popular culture in Europe over more than a century.

The opera was very popular in the United States, a fact to which Edith Wharton makes great reference in her novel The Age of Innocence. Wharton's novel opens at the New York Academy of Music during the end of the second act of the opera, when Christine Nilsson is singing the "Daisy Song".

The Argentinian author Estanislao del Campo wrote a satirical poem, Fausto (1866), which describes a gaucho's impressions during the performance of Gounod's opera.

A performance of the opera is part of the story of Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera and features in some film adaptations including the 1925 version. Irene Dunne performs the "Jewel Song" in the film Stingaree (1934) and Jeanette MacDonald performs several scenes from the opera in San Francisco (1936), complete with costumes, sets and orchestra.

There are very short extracts from the words to the "Jewel Song" in several stories in The Adventures of Tintin. In this series of comic strips, Tintin and his sidekick, Captain Haddock, often encounter a bombastic opera singer called Bianca Castafiore, of a more than passing resemblance to a later (1882) eminent Marguerite, Emma Calvé. Her trademark is the jewel song, which she always sings at high volume, never saying more than Ah! je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir or a few words more from other lines. The entire Tintin story The Castafiore Emerald (original title: La Castafiore's Jewels) derives from this running gag.

Although the Walpurgisnacht ballet sequence from act 5 is often omitted from staged opera performances, it is frequently performed separately as part of a ballet program, e.g. George Balanchine's Walpurgisnacht Ballet.

Siébel's aria, "Faites-lui mes aveux" from act 3 of the opera is quoted twice ("Tell her, oh flower") by Dorn in act 2 of Chekhov's play, The Seagull. The same song is used as the basis for Ravel's piano piece À la manière de Chabrier, in which the song by Gounod is rendered in the style of a composer much admired by Ravel.

In Thomas Mann's novel, The Magic Mountain, Hans Castorp plays "Valentin's Prayer" in the chapter Highly Questionable.

In Germaine Dulac's 1923 film La Souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet), the protagonist, an unhappy wife virtually imprisoned in the apartment above her much older husband's drapery store, stays home while her husband and his friends go to see a local production of Gounod's Faust, which is seen as representing everything oppressive, patriarchal, and belonging to the culture of the previous century. The wife's own musical preferences lay with the more modernist Claude Debussy, whose Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the Rain), she plays on her upright piano—until her husband locks the keyboard.


Main article: Faust discography



  1. "Opera Statistics". Operabase. Retrieved 8 May 2011.
  2. The Met database (archives)
  3. The description given here follows the order of the scenes as performed in the original production at the Théâtre Lyrique (Walsh 1981, p. 100) and as described in the plot summaries written by Steven Huebner (1992, pp. 133134; 2001, p. 337).
  4. Barbier & Carré 1859, p. 72.


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