Innocence Exploited: Gounod's 'Faust'

From Opera Carolina

Marguerite declares her love for Faust. i i

Marguerite (Maureen O'Flynn) confesses that she loves Faust (James Valenti), with no idea that he has sold his soul to the devil. Greg Cable/Opera Carolina hide caption

itoggle caption Greg Cable/Opera Carolina
Marguerite declares her love for Faust.

Marguerite (Maureen O'Flynn) confesses that she loves Faust (James Valenti), with no idea that he has sold his soul to the devil.

Greg Cable/Opera Carolina

There's a familiar saying among the spiritually minded: "The Lord works in mysterious ways." No matter what culture or belief set it springs from, it generally refers to a benevolent lord, whose ways are aimed at achieving the greater good.

But what about the lord of the underworld? At least in art and literature, that darker lord often works in ways far less mysterious, but at times devilishly effective. One of those ways is by zeroing in on universal frailties by offering people exactly what they truly want, and even need, at the expense of beliefs they had thought were dearly held. That's what happens in one of the most famous devil stories of them all — the tale of Faust — and the tactic is at the core of Charles Gounod's operatic version of the story.

The legend of the man who trades his soul for infinite knowledge — and sensual pleasures — is centuries old, and it's famously told in the classic drama by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, written in the early 19th century. But the story of the so-called Faustian bargain goes back far earlier than that.

The historical Dr. Faust was a self-styled philosopher and fortune-teller thought to have lived sometime in the late 1400s. He studied natural science, alchemy and magic, and received at least one degree from the University at Heidelberg. An early published account of his life appeared in 1587, claiming that when he died his soul was carried off by the devil. Supposedly he'd been dabbling in the dark arts, and got exactly what he deserved.

The libretto of Gounod's Faust is based on a play by Michel Carré called Faust and Marguerite — and the opera's insights lie as much in her story as in his. Faust makes his bargain knowing full well that he'll likely face dire consequences. Marguerite is taken unawares. Her aspirations are commonplace and defensible — she longs for meaningful love and a rewarding life. When she accepts both and finds that the price is a nearly unimaginable anguish, she refuses the easy way out, relying instead on faith that her true innocence will also be her salvation.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a production of Gounod's Faust from Opera Carolina, in Charlotte. The stars are tenor James Valenti in the title role, soprano Maureen O'Flynn as Marguerite and bass Chester Patton as Mephistopheles.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story of 'Faust'

Villagers ward off Mephistopheles. i i

Villagers ward off Mephistopheles with improvised crosses. Greg Cable/Opera Carolina hide caption

itoggle caption Greg Cable/Opera Carolina
Villagers ward off Mephistopheles.

Villagers ward off Mephistopheles with improvised crosses.

Greg Cable/Opera Carolina

Who's Who

James Valenti ……………..Faust

Maureen O'Flynn …….. Marguerite

Chester Patton ….. Mephistopheles

Corey McKern …………. Valentin

Diane McEwen-Martin ….. Siébel

Kim Blanchard ………….. Marthe

Jeremy Collier ………….. Wagner

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra

Opera Carolina Chorus

James Meena, conductor

As ACT ONE opens, an aging and decrepit Faust is alone in his study, brooding over his lifelong failure to find wisdom. He decides to kill himself. But just as he's about to drink poison, he hears the songs of peasant girls and workers in the distance. He curses their joy and cries out to the powers of hell. Mephistopheles appears in a puff of smoke and offers up a bargain: He'll grant Faust all the answers to life, and all its passion. In exchange, Faust will yield his soul. Faust hesitates to sign the contract, but Mephistopheles conjures an image of a beautiful young woman — Marguerite. Seeing that, Faust eagerly signs on the dotted line and is transformed into a young man. He and the devil set off for a life of adventure.

People are gathering during the Easter fair as ACT Twobegins. A young soldier named Valentin, Marguerite's brother, is headed off to war. Marguerite has given him a medallion, and he clutches it while praying that his sister will remain safe while he's away. He sings a farewell in the beautiful aria "Avant de quitter ces lieux" — "Before I leave this place."

Students and other soldiers start to carouse. A student named Wagner begins a cheeky song but is quickly interrupted by Mephistopheles, who sings a hymn to greed, the famous aria "Le veau d'or" — "The calf of gold." Then Mephistopheles makes a smart-alecky toast to Marguerite. Valentin finds it insulting and raises his sword, but it shatters. Other soldiers raise their swords in the form of crosses. Mephistopheles cowers and predicts that Valentin will die in battle.

The crowd begins to waltz. Faust offers to escort Marguerite home, but she declines. Mephistopheles laughs, promising to help Faust win her over.

At the start of ACT THREE, the young soldier Siebel is gathering flowers for Marguerite in her garden. Mephistopheles has predicted that the blossoms will wither and die as soon as they're plucked, and that's exactly what happens. Siebel vows to warn Marguerite about the untrustworthy duo of Faust and Mephistopheles, just as the two of them arrive.

Faust is humbled by the sight of Marguerite's house and sings a tender aria about her "Chaste and pure dwelling." Meanwhile, Mephistopheles produces a box of jewels and leaves them at Marguerite's door. He and Faust hide, as Marguerite comes to sit at her spinning wheel. She's excited to discover the sparkling gems and sings the famous "Jewel Song."

Faust declares his love for Marguerite while Mephistopheles distracts a nosy neighbor named Marthe. After a brief hesitation, Marguerite falls into Faust's arms. The seduction is complete, and as the lovers embrace passionately, the evil laughter of Mephistopheles echoes in the garden.

Siebel has flowers for Marguerite.

In a romantic gesture, the young soldier Siebel (Diane McEwen-Martin) leaves flowers for Marguerite in her garden. Greg Cable/Opera Carolina hide caption

itoggle caption Greg Cable/Opera Carolina

By the start of ACT THREE many months have passed. Marguerite has given birth to Faust's child, but he has deserted her. We find Marguerite in a church, praying for forgiveness. She hears the voice of Mephistopheles, taunting her, and she faints.

Meanwhile, the soldiers have returned from battle. Marguerite's brother Valentin is among them. When he asks after his sister, Siebel tells him she has gone to church. Valentin waits at Marguerite's house, where he finds Faust and Mephistopheles. Mephistopheles sings a lewd serenade and Valentin demands to know who has disgraced his sister. As Valentin and Faust fight a duel, Mephistopheles intervenes and Faust accidentally kills Valentin. As Marguerite and other villagers rush in, Valentin curses her with his dying words.

The act ends with Marguerite in church, trying to pray. She's tormented by Mephistopheles and haunted by a chorus singing about the day of judgment. Marguerite manages to finish her prayer, but then faints with terror when Mephistopheles offers up a final, withering curse.

ACT FIVE begins as Mephistopheles presides over Walpurgisnacht, the night when the souls of the dead gather on a mountaintop. Faust is haunted by an image of Marguerite. She has been imprisoned for the murder of her child and he insists on going to her immediately. She's happy to see him at first, and they sing a love duet, but Faust soon realizes that she's losing her mind.

When Mephistopheles emerges from the shadows, Marguerite prays to the angels to save her. Mephistopheles and Faust urge her to come away with them. But Marguerite refuses, and the two men realize they are defeated. As Faust looks on, heartbroken, the angelic chorus proclaims Marguerite's forgiveness and salvation, and her soul rises to heaven.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.