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ClassicsOnline Home » GOUNOD: Faust (Beecham) (1947-1948)
By Alan Blyth
By George Dorris
By Roy Brewer
Charles Gounod (1818-1893)
Faust, the fourth of Gounods operas, was first staged at the Paris Théâtre Lyrique on 19th March 1859. Recitatives were later added, with a ballet to fulfil the requirements of the Paris Opéra, where the work was staged in this expanded form ten years later. The libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré is based on Carrés three-act play Faust et Marguerite, itself derived from Gérard de Nervals translation of the first part of Goethes Faust. Various cuts were made during rehearsals for the first performance, in which the role of Faust was eventually taken, at short notice, by Joseph-Théodore-Désiré Barbot, Marguerite by Caroline Carvalho and Méphistophélès by Emile Balanqué. Valentins second act Avant de quitter ces lieux, a French version of the English Even the bravest heart may swell, added for the London English production of 1864, is here omitted, and was derived by the composer from a melody heard in the Prelude. The Walpurgisnacht ballet scene, added for the Opéra, is also omitted, as it often is in stage performances.
In his autobiography A Mingled Chime Sir Thomas Beecham gives an account of the lucky part that Gounods Faust played in his own career. Waiting for a chance to introduce an opera of his own to the impresario of a newly established touring opera company in 1902, he found himself called in to provide a piano accompaniment for a soprano who had not brought her music with her, auditioning for the part of Marguerite. He was able to accompany her from memory and when it turned out that he knew all the operas planned for the season and had accompanied the impresario himself in a series of favourite tenor arias, for which he offered increasing praise, he found himself engaged as second conductor for the tour. His services to opera in England were very considerable, from the days of the Beecham Symphony Orchestra before the war, to the foundation in 1915 of the Beecham Opera Company and in the 1930s an association with Covent Garden. Having lost control of his London Philharmonic Orchestra, which had become self-governing, Beecham established his own Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1946, after war years spent largely in New York. In the same year Covent Garden re-opened, not under Beecham, who had had artistic control until 1939, but under Karl Rankl.
Beecham naturally used his own newly formed orchestra for his recording of Gounods Faust, calling on the services of singers that included the French baritone Roger Bourdin, who was to spend some forty years in the service of the Paris Opéra-Comique from 1922 until his retirement in the 1960s and had appeared at Covent Garden in the 1930s as Pelléas to Maggie Teytes Mélisande. He was lucky to be able to engage Geori Boué, a distinguished soprano, who had sung the rôle at the Paris Opéra in the course of an international career, with the bass Roger Rico and the tenor Georges Noré, whose performance as Nicias in Massenets Thaïs is preserved on record.
1 The ominous orchestral introduction includes the melody later used for Valentins prayer in the second act, in which he seeks divine protection for his sister Marguerite during his own absence. The aria, as here, is often omitted.
2 The opening scene is set in the study of the old scholar Faust. It is night and the old man is seated at a table laden with parchments. The lamp is nearly out and he has an open book in front of him. Faust muses on his situation, sad, alone and powerless in his search to fathom the secrets of nature. In despair he closes the book and stands up. Dawn is breaking and Faust goes to open the casement. Unwilling to face yet another day, he takes from the table a vial of poison and pours its contents into a goblet, ready to drink a last salute to the day.
3 As Faust is about to drink, the sound is heard from outside of girls singing, welcoming the new day. Once again he is about to drink, but his hand trembles when the sound of farm-labourers is heard, as they go to work, greeting the day and blessing God. He sinks back in his chair.
4 Faust asks what God can do for him; will he give him back love, youth and faith? He calls down a curse on human pleasures, on knowledge, prayer and faith and summons Satan to his aid. His call is answered and Mephistopheles appears in the guise of a gentleman, sword at his side, feather in his hat, a purse full of gold and a rich cloak round his shoulders. Faust tries to send him away, but Mephistopheles will have none of it and asks Faust what he wants, money, glory or power. Faust wants something that will hold them all, youth, with all the pleasures it brings, and Mephistopheles offers this, for a small return, almost nothing: here Mephistopheles will be at his service and later Faust will serve him. He hands Faust a parchment for his signature, but the latter still hesitates.
5 To convince him Mephistopheles conjures up a vision of Marguerite at her spinning-wheel. Faust signs and Mephistopheles hands him the goblet. Faust, enraptured, drinks to Marguerite. As he drains the goblet, he is transformed into a young man; the vision disappears, while Mephistopheles promises to lead him to the girl and to the pleasures he desires.
6 The scene is set by one of the gates of the city of Leipzig, where a fair is being celebrated. At one side is a tavern, with the sign of the God Bacchus. The voices of students, Wagner among them, are heard from the tavern celebrating the joys of drinking. Soldiers sing of the joys of girls or battles and townspeople of soberer enjoyment. Girls flirt, watched enviously by older women, in a general air of festivity.
7 The young soldier Valentin, Marguerites brother, enters. He holds in his hand a holy medal, given him by his sister to protect him from danger in battle. He hangs the medal round his neck and goes towards the tavern, where he is welcomed by Wagner, but is always worried about leaving his sister alone and unprotected. Siebel, who is in love with Marguerite, promises to look after her. Wagner calls for further celebration and sings his song of the rat. He is interrupted by Mephistopheles, who offers his own song.
8 Mephistopheles sings the Rondo of the Golden Calf, in praise of gold, worshipped by mankind, where Satan leads the way.
9 The company thanks Mephistopheles for his song and Wagner invites him to drink with them. Mephistopheles takes his hand and reads in his palm the sign of death in battle, then, taking Siebels hand, tells him that any flower he touches will fade, so there can be no bouquets for Marguerite. Valentin asks how he knows his sisters name and Mephistopheles warns him, foretelling his death at the hands of one he knows. He takes a beaker from Wagner and drinks their health. The wine, though, is bad, he says, and offers them some from his own cellar. Climbing onto a bench he taps on a small barrel with the sign of Bacchus on it, calling on Lord Bacchus and then on the company to drink to Marguerite. Valentin, angry, seizes the beaker from Mephistopheles and throws the contents down, at which the wine bursts into flames. He challenges Mephistopheles, and the students and their friends draw their swords. Mephistopheles draws a circle round himself with his sword and those seeking to attack him find themselves thwarted, while Valentins sword breaks. Valentin accuses Mephistopheles of devilry and they all now hold their swords up by the blade, forming crosses, to check the power of the Devil. Mephistopheles draws back and the company disperses.
10 Mephistopheles sheathes his sword, promising that they shall all meet again, and asks Faust, who now joins him, where he should begin. Faust asks to be taken to the girl whose image he had been shown.
11 Girls, women, students and townspeople now returns, dancing a waltz. Mephistopheles urges Faust to join the girls, but it is Marguerite on whom Faust has set his heart. Siebel appears, waiting for Marguerite and refusing to dance. Marguerite enters. Mephistopheles urges Faust forward and when Siebel approaches her, he stands in his way.
12 Faust addresses Marguerite and offers her his arm, which she refuses, as she passes on, provoking his further admiration at her modesty. Mephistopheles offers further help and they leave together, while the people resume their dance.
13 The scene is Marguerites garden. In the background is a wall with a little door. To the left there is a thicket and to the right a little house, surrounded by roses and lilac. There are trees and bushes. Siebel enters the garden, asking the flowers to be messengers of his love, but as he plucks a flower, it fades, the work of the sorcerer he had encountered. He picks a second flower, with the same result, and dips his hand into a stoup of holy water, on the wall of the house. Now the flowers do not wilt and he withdraws into the shrubbery.
14 Faust and Mephistopheles enter the garden, but withdraw as Siebel returns with a bouquet, which he leaves by the door of the house. Mephistopheles promises to provide Faust with something much more valuable and leaves him for a moment.
15 Faust is overwhelmed by the sight of Marguerites house, a chaste and pure dwelling for one who is innocent. Mephistopheles returns carrying a jewel casket, but Faust now has scruples about his behaviour. Mephistopheles puts the casket down on the doorstep and they both leave.
16 Marguerite enters the garden, wondering who the young man is, surely a great lord, and what his name is. She sits down at her spinning-wheel and sings the old ballad of the King of Thule, interrupting her song with thoughts of Faust.
17 She stands up, still fascinated by the idea of the behaviour of great lords. She sees the bouquet that Siebel has left for her and then catches sight of the casket, which she opens, letting the flowers fall to the ground. In the famous Jewel Song, she sings of her joy, as she takes the jewels from the casket and puts them on.
Act III cont.
1 Marguerite is joined by her neighbour Marthe, who admires the jewels. Mephistopheles and Faust join them and Mephistopheles casually tells Marthe that her husband is dead, while Faust and Marguerite are absorbed by each other. Marthe asks if Mephistopheles brings anything from her husband but he tells her that to punish him she should seek another husband, suggesting that any man would be glad to marry her. Faust and Marguerite stroll away in the garden, leaving the other two alone together, with Mephistopheles in mock flirtation with Marthe.
2 Mephistopheles and Marthe move away, as Faust and Marguerite return. He asks her if she is always alone and she tells him that her brother is a soldier and that her mother is dead, as is her younger sister. Mephistopheles and Marthe return, he telling her that it is time for him to set out on his travels again, while she protests. Faust, meanwhile, urges his love for Marguerite, and she, as it grows dark, tells him he should go. Mephistopheles has had enough of his flirtation with this old woman who wanted to marry the Devil. Siebel enters the garden, but Marthe sends him away, and they leave together.
3 Mephistopheles watches the two lovers, Faust and Marguerite, and casts his spell of love over them, before withdrawing into the shadows.
4 Marguerite seeks to enter her house, but Faust begs her to stay and pleads his love for her. She picks a daisy, plucking the petals to see whether Faust really loves her. They embrace and promise to love each other for ever.
5 They sing of their love and Marguerite declares that she would die for him. She begs him to go and finally runs into the house, blowing him a kiss, as she goes in. Faust makes towards the door, but Mephistopheles emerges to bar his way.
6 Mephistopheles tells him to listen to what Marguerite has to say to the stars. She opens her window, and leans there for a moment, before singing of her love and Fausts love for her. He leaps forward to the window and seizes her hand and she lets her head fall on his shoulder, as Mephistopheles leaves the garden with a burst of diabolical laughter.
Act IV, Scene I
7 Marguerites spinning-song and the following scene with Siebel are omitted. There follows the church scene in which Marguerite is seen praying, while the voice of Mephistopheles is heard trying to prevent her and summoning devils to his aid. He tells her that it is Hell that calls her. A celestial choir is heard, but he tells her that God will never pardon her. She turns, however, to prayer, in spite of his recalling of her days of love. The voice of Mephistopheles is heard calling down a curse on her. She falls down, fainting, and the scene closes with the triumphant sound of the organ.
8 The scene is a street, on one side Marguerites house and on the other a church. The soldiers are returning, singing in celebration, as they march in.
9 Valentin learns from Siebel that all is not well with Marguerite, but cannot prevent him entering the house, while he himself turns to the church. Mephistopheles appears with Faust, urging him to go into the house, while Faust hesitates to bring further trouble there.
10 Mephistopheles sings a mock serenade, accompanying himself on a guitar and punctuating the performance with fiendish laughter. Faust tries to silence him, but Mephistopheles continues his serenade of pretended love.
11 Valentin bursts out of the house, angrily seeking to know what the two want. He takes his sword and smashes the guitar and demands satisfaction of one of them. They draw their swords and Valentin and Faust fight. Valentin casts aside the holy medal given him by his sister, to the delight of Mephistopheles, who turns the blade of Faust, unwilling to harm his beloved Marguerites brother, so that Valentin falls, mortally wounded. Mephistopheles draws Faust away from the scene.
12 Marthe rushes in, with a group of neighbours, anxious to help Valentin. They are joined by Marguerite, who falls on her knees beside her brother, and by Siebel. Valentin, however, repulses her, telling her that he has foolishly sought a quarrel with her lover, a declaration that shocks the onlookers. He tells her to discard the gold chain she wears and to suffer his curse on earth, if God may pardon her hereafter. His dying words shock the bystanders and he is carried into the house, while Siebel supports Marguerite, who is distraught.
13 The Walpurgisnacht scene is omitted, and the fifth act opens here with the prison scene.
14 Faust would be rid of Mephistopheles, who offers him the means to rescue Marguerite, who lies in prison, condemned to death for the murder of her baby.
15 Alone with Marguerite, Faust is haunted by fear and remorse. He calls to her, as she lies sleeping, and she wakes at the sound of her lovers voice.
16 Marguerite responds to her lover, declaring that she now has no fear of death and recalling her past happiness, the street where they first met, their first contact. He urges her to make her escape, but, delirious, she refuses.
17 Mephistopheles returns, urging haste, but recognised for what he is by Marguerite, who prays to the angels to take her soul to heaven. Faust seeks her escape, prompted by Mephistopheles, as a noise is heard outside, and Marguerite continues her prayers for salvation.
18 Finally Marguerite pushes Faust away from her, horrified at what she sees as a threatening look and hands covered with blood and sinking senseless to the ground. Mephistopheles declares that she is now judged, but voices of angels are heard, proclaiming Marguerites salvation. The bells of Easter ring out, the walls of the prison fall open and the soul of Marguerite ascends to heaven. Faust falls on his knees in prayer, while Mephistopheles is held at bay under the sword of the archangel. Voices hymn the resurrection of Christ, as the curtain falls.
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GOUNOD: Faust (Beecham) (1947-1948)