Overview of Gounod's Opera "Faust"

Gounod's Faust
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Charles Gounod's Faust is a three-part tragedy that takes place in 16th century Germany. It's loosely based on the three-part tragedy, Faust by Goethe and premiered on March 19, 1859, at the Theatre Lyrique in Paris, France.

Act 1

Faust is an aging old scholar, who after spending decades of his life studying, has realized he has achieved nothing, all the while missing his youth and chances at love. After cursing science and faith, Faust attempts suicide, twice. Each time he's about to drink poison, he hears a choir outside his window and sets the poison back down on the table. Faust, desperate, seeks guidance from the devil, and moments later, the devil, Méphistophélès, appears. Faust tells him of his desires for youth and love. The devil tells Faust that he can have it, but only if he forfeits his soul. Faust struggles with the decision, but the devil tempts him further by showing him a vision of a beautiful young maiden, Marguerite. Faust makes a deal with the devil, and the devil turns the poison into a potion of youth. Faust drinks the potion and transforms into a lovely, young man. The two venture out in search of Marguerite.

Act 2

Faust and Méphistophélès arrive at a city fair, where townspeople, students, and soldiers celebrate in merriment. A young soldier, Valentin, about to leave for the war, asks his friend Siébel to protect and watch over his sister, Marguerite, in his absence. Siébel agrees and the crowd begins to sing another song but is interrupted by Méphistophélès when he begins to sing a song about gold and greed. He causes wine to flow from an old barrel and provides everyone with alcohol. He says a malign toast towards Marguerite, and Valentin intervenes. Valentin draws his sword, but it shatters with Méphistophélès' slight touch. At that moment Valentin knows who he is dealing with and uses the hilt of his sword as a cross, hoping to get away from the devil. When Méphistophélès is joined by Faust once more, the two lead the villagers in a new round of song. Faust pulls Marguerite aside and tells her that he admires her, but she politely declines his advances.

Act 3

Siébel leaves a small bouquet of flowers outside of Marguerite's door, as he has taken a liking to her. Faust sees this and sends the devil out to search for a better gift. The devil returns with an ornate box filled with exquisite jewelry. Faust leaves the box outside of her door next to Siébel's flowers. A while later, Marguerite's neighbor arrives and spies the ornate box. She tells Marguerite that she must have an admirer. Marguerite tries on the magnificent jewels and falls in love with them. Faust and the devil make their way into the garden and visit with the two ladies. The devil flirts with Marguerite's neighbor so that Faust can speak to Marguerite alone. The two steal a quick kiss, but she sends him away. The two men leave, but stay close to her house. Inside, Marguerite sings a song, wishing Faust would return. Faust jumps at the chance and knocks on her door. She greets him, and the devil laughs manically - he knows his plan is working.

Act 4

Many months have passed, and Marguerite has a child. Meanwhile, Valentin and other soldiers have arrived home from war. Valentin questions Siébel about Marguerite but is unable to get a clear answer. Valentin enters Marguerite's house to check on her. Faust, feeling remorseful for abandoning her, returns with Méphistophélès, unaware that Valentin is there. Outside of her window, Méphistophélès sings a lewd ballad, mocking her. Valentin recognizes the voice and rushes outside with sword in hand. The three men fight. Méphistophélès blocks Valentin's sword, causing Faust to accidentally deliver the fatal blow to Valentin. Méphistophélès pulls Faust away. Marguerite rushes to her brother's aid, but he curses her in his last dying breath. She runs to the church, seeking forgiveness, but is stopped several times along the way by Méphistophélès. He bombards her with threats of damnation and curses.

Act 5

Marguerite has been driven insane. She sits in a prison, condemned to death for murdering her own child. Méphistophélès appears with Faust in order to collect her soul. At first, she is happy to see Faust. However, she refuses to go with him, and recalls their first days together and how happy they once were. Méphistophélès becomes irritated and tells Faust to make haste. Faust tells her that they can save her, but again, Marguerite refuses to go with them. She asks the angles for forgiveness and tells Faust that she entrusts her fate to God. Méphistophélès drags Faust to hell as Marguerite heads to the gallows. As she dies, a chorus of angels surrounds her spirit and announces her salvation.