Charles Gounod’s opera Faust, very loosely based of Part1 of Goethe’s Faust, was once so frequently performed that its constant presence at New York’s Metropolitan Opera caused the house to be derisively dubbed the Faustspielhaus. Today the opera, while still performed is not as frequent a visitor at the world’s lyric theaters as it was a generation ago, or more.
It doesn’t even make the top 30 of operas performed today. Faust was the opera that opened the Met’s first season in 1883. Today, it’s been 10 years since the company last performed the piece. As far as I know, there’s no plan to bring back Gounod’s masterpiece in the upcoming seasons. And there’s no question, at least in my mind, that it is a masterpiece. It has three great parts for soprano, tenor, and bass.
The baritone has a lesser role, but he gets to sing a bravura aria that Gounod added to the opera for the great English baritone Charles Santley. Gounod took a theme from the prelude and made it into ‘Even the bravest heart may swell’. The aria was so good that it remained in the opera as ‘Avant de quitter ces lieux’ for subsequent French productions of the work. The opera even has a great chorus.
So why the neglect? I can’t come up with a good reason for the opera’s current relative neglect. Among French operas there are only a few that are in it class or better. Carmen, of course, reigns supreme. The Tales of Hoffmann, unfinished as it is, is probably better – but not by much. Belioz’ Benvenuto Cellini and The Trojans are special cases that will appeal more to musicians than to audiences, though Cellini is a captivating effort.
What’s not to like in Gounod’s setting of a scholar’s search for immortality and love set awry by the devil himself? As is true for any staged production, spoken or sung, if Satan (in any of his guises) is part of the ensemble – he’ll take over the action. In Faust, Méphistophélès gets to chew the scenery while performing wicked miracles and tormenting Marguerite in a cathedral. This scene shows that Gounod could do more than write pretty tunes, it has real dramatic impact.
All of this waxing is a prelude to my insertion of the conclusion of the opera from a renowned recording of the opera made almost 70 years ago. Nicolai Gedda is Faust, Victoria de los Angeles sings Marguerite, and the great Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff is a menacing devil. The scene is set in in a jail cell. Marguerite is imprisoned for murdering the child she had by Faust. He offers to rescue her, but she refuses putting her trust in God and His angels (‘Anges purs, anges radieux’). Méphistophélès condemns her, but a heavenly voice proclaims her salvation. Her soul rises to heaven while Faust remains in the cell stuck with the devil.
The trio is one of opera’s finest and the celestial music that follows makes for an evocative ending of the five act opera. This fine example of French romanticism is too good to stay on the shelf indefinitely. The Met will doubtless bring it back before too long.