The 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Gounod was celebrated in 2018 with many worldwide productions of his Faust and Romeo and Juliet, and even the rarely performed Sappho. Gounod flourished in the great artistic fervor that was Paris in the mid-nineteenth century. It was surely one of the most creative moments of Western Civilization. It was the time of the novels of Balzac and Stendhal; the art of Delacroix and, later, Monet, Manet, Degas, and Renoir; the music of Berloiz, Mendelsohn, and Chopin. Gounod was introduced to the music of Bach by Fanny Mendelsohn, the sister of Felix. He himself taught Georges Bizet, the composer of Carmen. He won the Prix de Rome and showed his own paintings to the Director of the Academy in Rome, the great classical master Ingres, himself a dedicated violinist. (Ingres advised Gounod to learn painting by copying Ingres’ own work; Gounod said Ingres was at best a good amateur musician.)
Gounod wrote Faust in 1859. Faust is one of the most successful operas in history. In Paris alone it has been performed more than 2000 times. It was the first opera even performed at the Metropolitan Opera in 1883. It has been performed at the Met 753 times.
Gounod’s Faust is certainly a version of Goethe. But where Goethe’s Faust wants knowledge above all things, and knowledge as a means to power, Gounod’s Faust is looking for youth, and youth as a means to a specific kind of power—the power to compel love. He makes use of Mephistopheles as a bawd to corrupt the innocent Marguerite. He is literally a sexual predator. If in the emphasis on sex this Faust seems particularly French, it is also true that Gounod’s take on the story is truly concerned with the health of the soul.
Gounod’s Faust is about the soul of human beings. Gounod’s ideal for art, he wrote, was to raise the soul to contemplative heights like Michelangelo. In the opera Faust carelessly deals away his soul, and the ignorant crowd pursues nothing but pleasure. The pure Marguerite is an innocent victim, but she is completely vulnerable to an appeal to her vanity when the Devil gives her a box of wonderful jewels. She sings her joy in the famous jewel song (“Oh! I’m laughing”), which just shows how easy a mark she is. The Devil’s wicked laughter says it all. At the end, Faust is consumed by guilt over his actions, but his way of trying to save Marguerite is with more devilish magic. It is up to the angel chorus to redeem her pure soul, while Faust is left to the consequences of his devil’s bargain.
The key to Gounod’s music is its tuneful beauty. It is pure Romantic melody. Gounod is quoted as telling a student, “Melody alone counts in music.”
Whether in the concert hall or in the theatre, everything is based on melody, Music-loving audiences, even experienced ones, prefer works to have clarity and ideas that go right to the heart and not only the brain… Melody, always melody, my dear child, that is the sole, the unique secret of our art.
In bringing Faust to San Antonio, OPERA San Antonio is bringing a timeless story with incredibly memorable music from one of the greatest periods of creativity.
Please join us on May 9 and 11.
For a wonderful essay written by Algis Valiunas,
from The Weekly Standard,