Faust was not initially well-received. The publisher Antoine Choudens, who purchased the copyright for 10,000 francs, took the work (with added recitatives replacing the original spoken dialogue) on tour through Germany, Belgium, Italy, and England, with Marie Caroline Carvalho repeating her role.
It was revived in Paris in 1862, now a hit. A ballet had to be inserted before the work would be played at the Théâtre Impérial de l´Opéra in 1869: it became the most frequently performed opera at that house and a staple of the international repertory, which it remained for decades, after being translated into at least 25 languages.
Its popularity and critical reputation have declined somewhat since around 1950. A full production, with its large chorus and elaborate sets and costumes, is an expensive undertaking today, particularly if the Act V ballet is included. However, it appears as number eighteen on Opera America's list of the 20 most-performed operas in North America.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere cast, March 19, 1859|
(Conductor: - )
|Doctor Faust||tenor||Joseph-Théodore-Désiré Barbot|
|Marguerite||soprano||Marie Caroline Miolan-Carvalho|
|Valentin, a soldier, Marguerite's brother||baritone||Reynald|
|Wagner, friend of Faust||baritone||Cibot|
|Siebel, Faust's student||mezzo-soprano or soprano |
|Marthe Schwerlein, Marguerite's guardian||mezzo-soprano or contralto||Duclos|
|Young girls, labourers, students, soldiers, burghers, matrons,invisible demons, church choir, witches, queens and courtesans of antiquity, celestial voices|
Faust, an aging scholar, determines that his studies have come to nothing and have only caused him to miss out on life and love (Rien! En vain j'interroge). He attempts to kill himself (twice) with poison but stops each time when he hears a choir. He curses science and faith, and asks for infernal guidance. Méphistophélès appears (duet: Me voici) and, with a tempting image of Marguerite at her spinning wheel, persuades Faust to buy Méphistophélès's services on earth in exchange for Faust's in Hell. With Faust transformed into a handsome young gentleman, the strange companions set out into the world.
A chorus of students and soldiers and villagers sing a drinking song (Vin ou Bière). Valentin, leaving for war with his friend Wagner, entrusts the care of his sister Marguerite to his youthful friend Siébel (O Sainte Medaille). Méphistophélès appears, provides the crowd with wine, and sings a rousing, irreverant song about the Golden Calf (Le veau d'or). Méphistophélès maligns Marguerite, and Valentin tries to strike him with his sword, which shatters. Valentin and friends use the cross-shaped hilts of their swords to fend off what they now know is an infernal power (chorus: De l'enfer). Méphistophélès is joined by Faust and the villagers in a waltz (Ainsi que la brise légère). Marguerite appears and Faust declares his admiration, but she refuses Faust's arm out of modesty.
The lovesick boy Siébel leaves a bouquet for Marguerite (Faites-lui mes aveux). Faust sends Méphistophélès in search of a gift for Marguerite and sings a cavatina (Salut, demeure chaste et pure) about nature. Méphistophélès brings in a decorated box containing exquisite jewelry and a hand mirror and leaves it on Marguerite's doorstep, next to Siébel's faded flowers. Marguerite enters, pondering her encounter with Faust at the city gates, and sings a ballad about the King of Thulé (Il était un roi de Thulé). Marthe, Marguerite's neighbour, notices the jewels and says they must be from an admirer. Marguerite tries on the jewellery and is captivated by how they enhance her beauty, as she sings in the famous aria, the Jewel Song (Ah! je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir). Méphistophélès and Faust join the women in the garden and romance them. Marguerite allows Faust to kiss her (Laisse-moi, laisse-moi contempler ton visage), but then asks him to go away. She sings at her window for his quick return, and Faust, listening, returns to her. Under the watchful eye of Méphistophélès, it is clear that Faust's seduction of Marguerite will be successful.
(Note: The scenes of Acts Four and Five are sometimes given in a different order and portions are sometimes shortened or cut in performance.) After being impregnated and abandoned by Faust, Marguerite has given birth and is a social outcast. She sings an aria at her spinning wheel (Il ne revient pas). Siébel stands by her. Marguerite goes to the church and tries to pray there but is stopped, first by Méphistophélès and then by a choir of devils. She finishes her prayer but faints when she is cursed again by Méphistophélès. Valentin's company returns from the war to a military march (Deposons les armes). Siébel asks Valentin to forgive Marguerite. Valentin rushes to her cottage. Faust and Méphistophélès enter the garden and Méphistophélès sings a mocking burlesque of a lover's serenade under Marguerite's window (Vous qui faites l'endormie). Valentin comes out of the cottage, now knowing that Faust has debauched his sister. Faust and Valentin duel and Valentin is killed. With his dying breath he condemns Marguerite to Hell (Ecoute-moi bien Marguerite).
Méphistophélès and Faust are surrounded by witches (Un, deux et trois). Faust is transported to a cave of queens and courtesans, and Mephistopheles promises to provide Faust with the love of the greatest and most beautiful women in history. An orgiastic ballet suggests the revelry that continues throughout the night. As dawn approaches, Faust sees a vision of Marguerite and calls for her. Méphistophélès helps Faust enter the prison where Marguerite is being held for killing her child. They sing a love duet (Oui, c'est toi que j'aime). Mephistopheles offers to rescue Marguerite from the hangman, but she prefers to trust her fate to God and His angels (Anges purs, anges radieux). At the end she hallucinates that Faust's hands are covered in blood, repulses him, and faints; while Mephistopheles cries out that Faust has been judged. As Marguerite mounts the scaffold, a chorus of angels announces that she has been saved. (Sauvee! Christ est ressuscité).
Parts of the opera have seeped into popular culture in Europe over more than a century. Faust was so popular in the United States that in New York the opera season began with a performance of it every year for several decades in the late nineteenth century, a fact to which Edith Wharton makes great reference in her Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Age of Innocence. The Argentinian author Estanislao del Campo wrote a satirical poem, Fausto (1866), which describes a gaucho's impressions during the performance of Gounod's opera. A performance of this opera is part of the back story of The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux and appears in some of the film adaptations of that novel such as The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Jeanette MacDonald performs several scenes from the opera in the 1936 film San Francisco, complete with costumes, sets and orchestra. The biggest impression has perhaps been left by the famous aria sung by Marguerite – the jewel song – since children all over the world have been reading very short extracts from it in several stories in The Adventures of Tintin. In this series of graphic novels or comic strips our hero Tintin and his sidekick, Captain Haddock, often encounter a bombastic opera singer called Bianca Castafiore. Her trademark is the jewel song, which she always sings at high volume, never saying more than Ah! je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir or a few words more from other lines. The waltz from Gounod’s Faust was used on British television in the third series of Monty Python comedy programmes, first shown in 1972; the music was used in the soundtrack of the 34th episode, entitled "The Cycling Tour".
Although the Walpurgisnacht ballet sequence from Act V is often omitted from staged opera performances, it is frequently performed separately as part of a ballet program.