Charles Gounod’s “Faust“ in the dialogue version of 1859 at Oper Köln
Charles Gounod’s undisputed masterpiece “Faust” achieved international renown in its “opéra” version, fully-sung throughout. Since then, it has been completely forgotten that the work, which was of no interest to the director of the Paris Opéra, was first composed with spoken dialogues for the Théâtre Lyrique, the third opera theatre in the French capital after the Académie impériale de musique and the Opéra-Comique. It is in this mixed form, distinct from both grand opéra and opéra comique, that it has become established. It exists in two main versions which contain previously unpublished numbers and melodramas.
Gounod first encountered Goethe’s “Faust” in 1840, during his stay at the Villa Medici after winning first prize in the Prix de Rome. It is true to say that the text exerted a real fascination on artists and the French public, and that it had already given rise to a considerable number of arrangements. From this time, Gounod sketched different ideas in his notebooks which he hoped to be able to exploit “when he approached this subject as an opera” (Mémoires d’un artiste). Italy fed his penchant for romanticism, and it was probably in this state of mind that he composed a short Adagio for piano, entitled À la lune, the first draft of what was to become an important theme for Duo set in the garden of the future opera, “Ô nuit d’amour, ciel radieux!”
It is still difficult to establish the genesis of the “Faust” libretto. It was the fruit of a shared wish of Jules Barbier, Gounod and Léon Carvalho, the director of the Théâtre Lyrique. Barbier borrowed the framework of Michel Carré’s prose drama (Faust et Marguerite, 1850), which he expanded and set in verse. Carré only intervened later in a few of the numbers, the most famous of which is the “Ronde du veau d’or”, and also undoubtedly in the spoken dialogues. Shortened several times, the libretto was submitted to the censor in November 1858.
Just like the German critics who, from the end of the 19th century, saw in Barbier and Carré’s adaptation a far-too-pale imitation of Goethe, French music critics have often denigrated the libretto which Gounod set to music. The aim of the authors of the opera libretto was not so much to be faithful to the accepted model as to create an adaptation freely fashioned for the lyric theatre, even though the Faust myth had already given rise to numerous works in French based on Goethe.
Cleverly conceived from a dramatic point of view and carefully set in verse, the initial libretto is based on three elements of equal importance. The first is of course the love affair between Faust and Marguerite. The pious young girl succumbs to the charms of the ambiguous Faust, an unscrupulous womaniser who ends up by mistrusting his sinister companion. The unrequited love of classical tragedy gives way to an unhealthy relationship that leads to the murder of a child born out of wedlock. The second element emphasizes the fantastic and allows for spectacular staging effects, from Faust’s rejuvenation and the idealized appearance of Marguerite in the back of the scholar’s study to Walpurgis Night, where demons and witches devote themselves to the Sabbath.
The strongest thematic element is of a religious kind and one cannot help thinking that Gounod largely contributed to developing it by giving it an importance that it has neither in Goethe, nor in Carré’s drama. The libretto in fact summarizes a Christian catechism of sin. The innocent Marguerite has surrendered to a lover who desires her without really loving her, has brought a child into the world which she murders to cover up her “crime”. Her sincere contrition leads her to unmask the demon from which she will triumph. Like a new Eve, she wins her salvation in an apotheosis which recalls the Assumption of the Virgin. In his imprecations, Faust curses "love, hope and faith", the theological virtues translated into the three parts of the traditional Christian prayer. Unlike Marguerite, his science, rooted in this world, ignores the poverty of the heart extolled by the sermon of the Beatitudes, but instead predisposes him to sin and distances him from Wisdom, the true knowledge of God. Certainly with more success than in the Gospel accounts (Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13), Méphistophélès tempts his victim by offering him wealth and power here, before granting him youth at the price of a mortal pact in order to enjoy material pleasures for a short time. The opera ends with a serene proclamation of the resurrection of Christ – the heart of the Catholic faith which so perturbed the censors – a definitive call to life and a response to the mortifying “Rien” (“nothing”) which began the prologue.
According to Carvalho the opera was almost complete by the end of February 1857, but at that stage the orchestration was still very fragmentary and all the numbers were far from being finished. During summer 1858, Gounod worked relentlessly on the orchestration. The first rehearsals began at the start of September. The magnitude of the task led Carvalho to postpone the first performance until the beginning of the following year, which did not help reassure the composer about the value of his work. “As for me,” he wrote to Georges Bizet (January 11, 1859), “I cannot tell you too much about the value of my score: I am so engrossed in it that I am a very poor judge. Nothing has any effect on me today: I am saturated by my music.”
The new edition presents the version of “Faust” which is closest to its creators’ original intentions. Although several numbers only differ from the well-known pieces in details of orchestration (duet for Faust and Méphistophélès “Me voici!...”, duel trio “Que voulez-vous messieurs?”, Valentin’s death “Par ici, mes amis!”), others will transform the usual perception music-lovers have of Gounod’s Faust: the trio of Faust, Wagner and Siebel “À l’étude ô mon maître”, Valentin and Marguerite’s duet “Adieu, mon bon frère!”, Méphistophélès’ aria “Maître Scarabée”, Siebel’s romance “Versez vos chagrins dans mon âme!”, Valentin’s aria with chorus “Chaque jour, nouvelle affaire” and the witches’ chorus “Un, deux et trois”. The second section of Faust’s Cavatina (“Salut! demeure chaste et pure”), recently rediscovered by chance, has been restored in its entirety. It had been shortened by 117 bars during the 1858-59 rehearsals to ease the task for the tenor Guardi, a singer at the start of his career who ultimately did not create the role. In addition, there are seven melodramas for which the missing or incomplete orchestration has been completed for the present reconstruction.
This is certainly not the form in which the public heard Faust in 1859. Léon Carvalho, both director and producer, had a very strong personality and put Gounod under pressure to make numerous and constant alterations. In addition, the newspapers regularly reported on the postponement of the premiere because of lack of preparation, something which only whetted the public's curiosity.
No doubt the authors, Gounod first and foremost, had some reason to be concerned about the final result of their Faust. The work contained far too much music and many cuts had to be made so that the performance would not exceed an evening’s duration. Jules Massenet, then a timpanist at the Théâtre Lyrique, recounted: "We were rehearsing in a frenzy, under the direction of the good Léo Delibes, who was then the chorus director ... We knew that there was an organised cabal ... Just imagine, this new music was so different from that which was successful at the time!... In the theatre we were nervous, worried, we found it too long ... and Gounod cried ... yes, cried... because of the cuts that he was forced to make in his score” (Georges Cain, Promenades dans Paris). To these constraints of all kinds must be added the demands of the diva Mme. Carvalho, the creator of the role and wife of the theatre director.
The work was finally premiered on 19 March 1859, with Marie-Caroline Miolan-Carvalho (Marguerite), Jules Barbot (Faust) and Mathieu-Émile Balanqué (Méphistophélès) in the principal roles. The trio and duet mentioned above were cut. The “Ronde du veau d’or” replaced the original Scarabée couplets after Carvalho had rejected four sketches for Méphistophélès’ arias. The Soldiers’ Chorus replaced Valentin’s aria. We do not know what proportion was spoken text, something of little importance if we are to believe the press, which recognized in “Faust” “a truly grand opéra because of the development of the style and the almost total absence of dialogue” (Revue musicale, 1 April 1859). Saint-Saëns, who admitted he preferred the opera version, noted however, that “in certain sections the mixture of speech and orchestra was very picturesque” (Portraits et souvenirs). During the run of performances and revivals – the work was performed every season – an uninterrupted sequence of transformations to the opera followed.
At the beginning of the 20th century music critics essentially perpetuated the theme of the press reviews which had been most unfavourable to Gounod since the work’s premiere in 1859. Without doubt they were based upon Carvalho’s testimony, who was certainly eager to affirm his courage in the face of hostility, something which he liked to exaggerate. In fact, reviewers treated the opera like all other new works, and the judgements, divided and almost always nuanced, ultimately reflected a fairly favourable image of the work; this despite the lack of respect paid to Goethe’s model, which was the main criticism addressed to the authors. In the end, these papers had little interest in the music, only bestowing compliments on the numbers which were to become the most popular. By contrast, it was the commentators with the greatest musical knowledge who were the most enthusiastic. Joseph d’Ortigue wrote: “Monsieur Gounod writes as a man who possesses in equal measure the language of intelligence and the language of the ear, the language of words and the language of sounds. He phrases perfectly his recitatives, he knows how to cut a dialogue, he knows the power of the accent and the power of versification. The poetic phrase is itself embedded in his musical phrase. This means that to all the science, to all the inspiration which make the great musician, Monsieur Gounod adds the qualities which make the cultivated man. One understands that, as well as the beauties of his music, he possesses the highest feelings for the beauties of the other arts” (Le Ménestrel, 27 March 1859).
The dialogues were shortened and two melodramas disappeared. But the Walpurgis Night remained, largely criticized by the press, who did not appreciate witches riding on broomsticks or the fire in a cauldron being raked with iron spoons. After the revival in autumn 1859, according to the press the Walpurgis Night was “purged of a good number of horrors”. The last act was therefore considerably shortened, and the work lost the greatest portion of its fantastical dimension. It is probable that Gounod, very much at ease in langorous love duets, did not know how to give the necessary force to the Witches Sabbath. And the weak production undoubtedly did not help either. However, the audience was ecstatic about the church scene which originally preceded the return of the soldiers. The nearby church was now in sight, occupying the whole stage including the church interior. This effect disappeared in 1862 when the Théâtre Lyrique moved to the Place du Châtelet, where the much smaller stage did not offer the same opportunities for staging. The spoken dialogues disappeared in 1866, but everything points to the fact that several mélodramas were retained until 1869 when the work was staged at the Paris Opéra. Although he remained faithful to a traditional concept of lyric theatre, Gounod engaged in a thorough-going renewal of French opera. Renouncing vocal virtuosity for its own sake, he revived it with simple melodies, with great freshness of invention, skilfully adapted to the rhythm of the text, supported by an expressive orchestral accompaniment full of the unexpected. The drama lost in intensity but became more intimate: the musician painted the characters, and evoked them with charm, elegance and picturesque feelings that he invited his audience to share. The juxtaposition of briefly stated ideas formed a continuous sequence, seeking a balance between melody, declamation and symphony, opening the way for lyric drama as French composers would go on to conceive it in the last decades of the century.
(Translation: Elizabeth Robinson)
Photo: Bernd Uhlig