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Operapedia: Faust 

Henry Stewart finds the devil in the details of Gounod’s once mega-popular tragedy.
by Henry Stewart 


 

The Basics  

The title’s aging professor rejects study, makes a deal with the devil to reclaim his youth, impregnates a girl, abandons her, kills her brother and realizes his sin when he watches her soul ascend to heaven.

 

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▼  Where It Is This Season

Through October, there are at least ten productions in ten cities, including a new production in August at the Salzburg Festival, featuring all-stars such as Piotr Beczala, Ildar Abdrazakov and Maria Agresta.

 

 
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Time and Place  

Faust was the most popular opera of its day; Edith Wharton mentions it in the first paragraph of her 1920 novel The Age of Innocence, because nothing quite said “1870s New York” to her readers like Gounod’s music drama, the great Victorian soprano Christine Nilsson and the Academy of Music. It was that opera house whose exclusionary old-money membership caused Gotham’s nouveau riche to rebel and found the Metropolitan Opera—which opened in 1883 with a performance of Faust, starring Christine Nilsson! Part of Gounod’s score appears on the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of The Age of Innocence; he filmed the Academy of Music scenes at Opera Philadelphia’s extant theater of the same name, as the New York original had been torn down decades before.

 

Reactions   

Jules Barbier and Michel Carré based the libretto on Carré’s Faust et Marguerite, which departed from Goethe. “[T]heir opera is undeniably reactionary … often damned by skeptics as petit-bourgeois in its preoccupations,” David J. Baker once wrote in opera news. “While exploiting the original shock value of the diabolical pact, [the librettists] realigned the legend with Christian orthodoxy [and] scrubbed away ambiguities.” Such moral certainty may have played a part in the opera’s declining popularity after World War II, as the West became skeptical of black-and-white philosophies.


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◀︎ First Performances  

The opera was first performed at the Mariinsky Theatre, in St. Petersburg, in December 1890. It was Tchaikovsky’s penultimate opera, two years before the ravishing one-act Iolanta. (For context, his other still-popular opera, Eugene Onegin, made its debut in 1879.) Almost a year after its world premiere, Queen was heard in Moscow, the city where Tom Hardy, playing an agent of the MGB (precursor to the KGB), hears it many years later, when his character in Child 44 (2015) attends the opera.

 

Hit Tune   

The jewel song, from Act III, in which Marguerite tries on a box of jewels left for her by Faust’s coconspirator, Méphistophélès, is one of the iconic arias of opera—what people hear when they imagine fat ladies singing. That said, plenty of svelte women have sung it too, such as Jeanette MacDonald, in San Francisco(1936), a movie about the earthquake on April 18, 1906. The Met touring company happened to be in the city at the time, scheduled to end its visit that Saturday evening with Faust, which was canceled after the Wednesday-morning seismic shock destroyed the sets and costumes. (Superstar Enrico Caruso’s survival became a tabloid sensation!) The curtain rose at the Met on a new production that New Year’s Eve—because no reputable opera company in 1906 could go very long without a production of Faust!

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Spoiler Alerts   

Marguerite’s character recalls Wagner’s Elisabeth, the chaste love interest from Tannhäuser, which had its premiere in 1849 (and reached France—Strasbourg—by 1855). Both are clean-living women whose associations with sin-seeking men cause their deaths, leaving the men who ruined them to pray earnestly, which reasonable observers might consider disproportionate penalties. In fact, you might say it sounds like nineteenth-century misogyny, except I’m sure women in the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries really did suffer many tribulations for their menfolk.


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Something  Completely  Different   

Hergé, the Belgian cartoonist, didn’t care for opera, an opinion manifested by a recurring character in his Tin-Tin series, Bianca Castafiore, who, with knock-your-socks-off volume, always belts the first line of the jewel song (“Ah! je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir”). The aria so defined her that her eponymous Tin-Tin adventure, The Castafiore Emerald, is about stolen jewels. Steven Spielberg featured the character in his Tin-Tin movie (voiced by Renée Fleming!) but weirdly gave her a tune to sing from Gounod’s other enduring opera, Roméo et Juliette.


In Pop Culture 

In Act II, Valentin, Marguerite’s brother, sings “Avant de quitter ces lieux” before he heads off to war. The aria was a late entry, written to an English text for the London premiere in 1864, for the star baritone Charles Santley. It later proved popular in an Italian translation, “Dio possente,” but likely even more so when its melody was arranged as one of several theme songs for Lassie. It was released as a 78rpm record in the ’50s, with lyrics by Mary Rodgers that would make Barbier and Carré look good to their critics: “Come here, Lassie, there’s a pup / What a day it’s going to be / Lassie, the morning sun is up / Lassie, come home to me.”

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◀︎  Surprise Showstopper  

“Laisse-moi,” the duet between Faust and Marguerite near the end of Act III, is as soft and tender as opera duets get, which is why it’s amusing as the number in which the famous soprano Carlotta begins to croak in the classic, comic scene from Gaston Leroux’s novel Phantom of the Opera. Her croaking ostensibly causes the Palais Garnier’s chandelier to crash, a moment that became musical-theater history when Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote it as the grand finale to Act I of his now long-running musical adaptation.


The Performance We Wish We’d Seen   

The Metropolitan Opera has presented Faust 753 times, making it the eighth most-performed opera in the company’s history (though it wasn’t done there at all during the 1980s). So the 594th performance, on December 22, 1965, wouldn’t have seemed that special (thought, in fact, it was a new production), except that it offered the house debuts of two future house stars—Montserrat Caballé, as Marguerite, and Sherrill Milnes, as Valentin, the role with which he’d made an impression at New York City Opera the year before.

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