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The promises of youth

On Gounod's Faust

By Tobias Kratzer 22 March 2021

© Monika Rittershaus / OnP

The promises of youth

Charles Gounod's opera Faust largely follows the template of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's play Faust I. Appearances can, however, be deceptive as it is more a specific interpretation of Goethe's themes than a musical portrayal of his text. Nothing could highlight the difference between the two works more clearly than the central wishes of the eponymous hero. Goethe's Faust is driven by a thirst for knowledge. He wants to know ‘what binds the core of the world'. Gounod's Faust, by contrast, wrestles with getting old: 'I want youth!'

Some commentators see this is as trivialising Goethe's material, but I find it as relevant as the intellectual's striving for knowledge, as depicted in the play. The desire for eternal youth is one of humanity's enduring dreams. Entire industries still devote themselves to nothing other than an ageing population's tragicomic wish to delay their physical decline.

Faust's selling of his soul to the devil in return for eternal youth is simultaneously the fantastical epicentre of the opera's plot and the realistic metaphor of literally magical realism.

Gounod's opera is, unlike Goethe's highly reflective play, thus less a philosophical essay or an intellectual treatise. It pays homage to the hero's zestful cravings and deploys all the musical forms and visual effects one would expect to find in 19th century French opera. In this sense, the score's two most famous scenes should be seen as paradigms for the entire work: Marguerite's 'Jewel Song' is a hymn of praise to superficial glamour and the no less popular 'Waltzes from Faust' celebrate a 'joie de vivre' which not only helps to drive the storyline but also serves as a secret vanishing point for the entire work.

In our production for the Paris Opera I really want the timeless significance of Charles Gounod's genuine and genuinely French interpretation of the Faust material to be made as clear as possible. We've situated the opera in a contemporary urban location and have tried to do justice to Faust's basic longings as well as to the tragedy of his demonic pact.

Mephistofeles is thereby not just a metaphor for Faust's unfettered wish fulfillment. He also reflects other characters' fears and yearnings, above all those of Marguerite. In Goethe, 'Gretchen' (as she is called in the German play) is first and foremost a victim, interesting mainly as Faust's love interest. With Gounod, the character becomes more important. The opera portrays a precise pyschological study of a woman succumbing more to inner fears than external moral discussions.

In the great 'Church Scene', Mephistofeles is no longer just Faust's alter ego, he is also Marguerite's nemesis, capable of manipulating the latter's primordial fears of pregnancy and abandonment as easily as the ageing man's mid-life crisis. Or rather the opposite: could it be these primordial fears that enable Mephistofeles to exist?

As for religion in Gounod's Faust: The work is musically and in terms of content interwoven with moral questions of the 19th century. Instead of ignoring them we have tried to release them a little from their historical and ecclesiastical context. In this piece, the subjects under discussion are urban and contemporary fears. As the characters yield more to their own aspirations than to an outward sense of ethics, redemption is maybe also a question that the opera approaches more humanely than the intensely devout Gounod realised.

When Marguerite's faithful friend Siebel promises her eternal fidelity at the beginning of Act IV and places her well-being above the pain of his own unrequited love, not even the massed heavenly choirs of the work's final apotheosis can rival the sheer humanity and salvation present in that moment.

And maybe it is Siebel's empathy which alone defies the 'Mephistofeles Principal' and makes mankind's basic existential trauma bearable: Namely to age and to die, but yet for one moment to be loved for what one is.

'Ah, qu'il est doux de vivre'.

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