Faust Damned and Marguerite Saved: Changing Faust’s Fate in Paris

Note from William: In celebration of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the San Diego Opera, I will be re-printing program notes that the opera company commissioned me to write. The second of these, re-printed with the kind permission of the copyright holder, the San Diego Opera, contains the program notes for their April and May 2011 performances of Gounod’s “Faust”.


A century and a half ago, Charles Gounod’s Faust (1859) premiered in Paris, and, over the next few years, established itself as the most popular French opera. That honor was subsequently ceded to Georges Bizet’s Carmen, but the Gounod work continues to be one of the two most performed of all French operas.

[Below: Charles Gounod in 1859, the year of the premiere of “Faust”; resized image of a historical photograph.]


During these 150 years, a majority of operatic commentators have stated that Gounod’s Faust was adapted from Johann Goethe’s “Faust, Part I”. But it is Michel Carré’s 1850 play “Faust et Marguerite” that is the source of Gounod’s adaptation. The few who have acknowledged Carré’s play have done so without discussion of how Carré changed Goethe’s story.

Carré, who later was co-librettist for Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, is best known as the co-librettist with Jules Barbier for Gounod’s operas Faust and Romeo et Juliette, and co-author of the play, with Barbier, on which Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann libretto is based. Subsequently, another Carré collaborator on plays and opera libretti, Jules Verne, came to be far more famous through his work in science fiction rather than his collaborations with Carré on theatre and opera.

[Below: Michele Carré, whose play “Faust et Marguerite”, rather than Goethe’s poem, inspired the plot of Gounod’s “Faust”; resized image of an historical photograph.]


Carré and Barbier are credited as the co-authors of the libretto for Gounod’s opera. Carré, Barbier and Gounod split the royalties its performances generated. But Carré had the misfortune to die before Gounod and Barbier, and was unable to counter a negative impression of Carré’s contribution left by Gounod’s official biographer, Marie Anne de Bovet, 20 years after Carré’s death.

According to de Bovet, who extensively interviewed the composer over 30 years after the first performance of the opera, Gounod regarded Carré’s participation in the construction of the libretto as minimal and, in areas where he disagreed with Barbier, unhelpful. But Carré had a much more central role in the construction of the opera than de Bovet infers.

A close reading of Carré’s play provides convincing evidence that we should regard Carré’s play, rather than Goethe’s poem, as the source of Gounod’s Faust libretto. There is also evidence that Carré’s work was itself strongly influenced by the libretto that composer Hector Berlioz wrote for his extraordinary opera, The Damnation of Faust, which premiered in Paris in 1846.

Although Berlioz’ work was directly based on Goethe’s epic, it deviated from Goethe in crucial ways that later influenced the plot of Carré’s play. The most obvious deviation was the elimination of a prologue in heaven where a wager between Méphistophélès and God over Faust’s soul takes place. By eliminating the wager, Berlioz refocuses his opera on Faust’s interactions with Marguerite.

These changes are present in Carré’s and ultimately Gounod’s work. But a more subtle deviation by Berlioz is also adopted by Carré and Gounod. Faust’s soul, which in Goethe ends in Heaven, Berlioz and the Carré-Barbier-Gounod team send to Hell. Berlioz was the first musician and dramatist to see that the destruction of Marguerite at the hand of Faust and Méphistophélès was a heinous act for which Faust should be condemned.

Whereas Goethe’s Faust achieves redemption and acceptance into heaven, Berlioz, as his title The Damnation of Faust proclaims, rejects such redemption. Denying Faust his lustful pursuits on his path of enlightenment without experiencing the consequences of his action, turns Goethe’s story on its head. Carré and then Gounod follow Berlioz’ lead.

Carré, a young painter turned librettist, would certainly have known of Berlioz’ opera, which premiered four years before Carré’s drama. Carré was one of the young anti-establishment generation of dramatists and opera librettists, and Berlioz was a leading critic of the old ways of performing opera. Berlioz’ Faust opera having been regarded as a failure, Carré tried his own hand at improving upon Goethe’s relatively sketchy episode of Faust’s dalliance with Marguerite.

[Below: the opening scene of Gounod’s “Faust” in which Méphistophélès conjures the apparition of Marguerite; resized image of a Giancarlo Costa illustration from the archives of the Chateau Sforza, Milano, Italy.]


Few people, including Gounod scholars, appear to have read Carré’s play “Faust et Marguerite”, which dates from 1850. The play exists only as a pamphlet in French.

De Bovet, Gounod’s biographer, disparages Carré’s play, describing it as “a small piece, in which Goethe’s characters, reduced to the dimension of drawing-room ornaments, had been adapted to the taste of the day, and to the frame of a comedy stage.”  But a reading of Carré’s play shows that it is a much more substantial piece than that.

Although not everything in Carré’s play can be found in the libretto of the opera Faust nine years later, almost all of the incongruities one perceives between Goethe’s poem and Gounod’s opera can be explained by Carré’s work.

Carré filled in the storyline of the Faust-Marguerite liaison in significant ways. Carré’s Marguerite has a support system. Carré has made her brother Valentin a more caring brother than Goethe’s Valentine, who does little more than curse Marguerite for sullying the family honor. Marguerite’s mother (poisoned in Berlioz’ opera) does not exist in either Carré’s play or Gounod’s opera.

Carré also creates the role of Siébel – appropriating the name of one of Goethe’s carousing students – but otherwise Carré’s Siébel bears no other relationship to Goethe’s. The latter is smitten with love for Marguerite and has taken upon himself the job of watching over her and guarding her safety. Carré’s play is the source of all the Siébel scenes in Gounod’s Faust – both those in the “standard version” (the flower song and dipping his hand into holy water to remove Méphistophélès’ curse) and in other scenes with Marguerite and Valentin that were usually cut in 20th century performances, but often done now.

In Carré’s drama, Siébel is an even larger part than it is in Gounod’s later opera. Carré’s Siébel is Professor Faust’s student in the first scene, unwittingly describing Marguerite, the object of Siébel’s desire, to Faust. Later, the lovesick Siébel spies on Faust and Marguerite in the garden scene, and is also present in the prison scene before Marguerite ascends into heaven. Gounod’s Siébel does not appear in Faust’s study, or the garden and prison scenes.

According to de Bovet, Carré was skeptical of the idea of turning Goethe’s poem into an opera. But we do know that Carré agreed to be the libretto’s co-author, and to offer his play Faust et Marguerite as the principal source of the opera’s plot. But even with obvious deference to Carré’s crucial contribution to the construction of Faust, it was Barbier and Gounod who created a new style of French opera in which intimate, erotic phrases are set to luxurious “sweet melody” notably in the Garden Scene.

When Parisians discovered Gounod’s Faust, the seductiveness of Méphistophélès’ “O nuit etends sur eux ton ombre” (Night, cover them with your shadows) and the love duet between Faust and Marguerite “O nuit d’amour! Ciel radieux. O douces flames!” (O night of Love, radiant sky, sweet passion) were sentiments never before seen on the opera stage. Add Gounod’s breathtaking melodies and the magic of theatrical lighting, and the effect was astonishing for mid-19th century audiences, and still can be profoundly affecting.

The music and words of Faust, which provide the model for a more natural way of expressing such emotions as romantic love, were to be an important influence on a generation of French opera composers – including Bizet, Leo Delibes, Jules Massenet and Camille Saint-Saëns – and would resound in Italy also, influencing Giuseppe Verdi and the generation that followed him.

There were three other personalities that were important to Faust’s success. Leon Carvalho, the youthful impresario at the upstart Theatre Lyrique was ready to challenge the establishment opera companies in Paris with new works of young composers, if he felt innovation would enhance his box office receipts. His soprano wife, Marie Miolan-Carvalho, foresaw the possibilities that the role of Marguerite would have for her career and became the opera’s early advocate.

[Below: a representation of the last act’s “Helen of Troy” scene at the Théâtre Lyrique, where “Faust” premiered and where its popularity with Parisian audiences was established; edited image, based on a historical illustration.]


Another young man, Antoine de Choudens, in the process of establishing himself as a viable publisher, used his entire capital to purchase the publishing rights for Faust. With Choudens’ firm in hock for Faust, its modest success in Paris in 1859 did not provide the return on which Choudens desired to justify his high-risk investment, so he aggressively promoted the opera’s mounting by several regional companies in Germany, where it emerged as a smash box office hit. Its 1862 Paris revival, incorporating some alterations, proceeded to establish itself as the most popular opera in the world.

The opera’s success and popularity result from Gounod and Barbier extracting from Carré’s version of the epic tale a very accessible, human scale story, which Barbier’s text made imminently comprehensible, and to which Gounod’s luxuriously melodic music fits very nicely.

It is a story as old as time – a woman victimized by a man, abandoned, left pregnant, charged with murder, and insane by the tale’s end. There is virtually no other situation recounted in opera’s standard repertoire like that in which Marguerite finds herself.

Today’s audience sees the tale as “operatic”. But prior to Berlioz and Gounod, the personal plight of a young village girl would not have been deemed a “regal” or “classic” story line. 

The “night of love” duet, one of the most beautiful passages in all of opera, has a sinister undertone to it. Forces of evil have cast this spell and are manipulating Marguerite’s thinking as surely as if she had taken a “date rape” drug. And, in the scene’s conclusion, when the Devil causes her to reveal her most secret erotic thoughts, Faust rushes into her bedroom with all the disastrous consequences that sex with a scoundrel can bring upon a woman.

Once you begin to think in terms of the storyline in this way, one can see why Faust’s redemption and acceptance into Heaven might seem so foreign to Gounod. In his 20s he was employed as an organist by an evangelical Catholic order, and had considered joining the priesthood and devoting himself to missionary work.

The Carré storyline was psychologically consonant with Gounod’s religious sensibilities. Faust is complicit in evil and in mortal sin and is condemned. Marguerite as the victim is accepted into heaven when she appeals to the angels to save her.

Gounod was one of the greatest of all composers of church music of his day, be it for Catholic churches in Paris or Anglican churches in London. Carré’s plot line provides the opportunity to bring forth on the operatic stage the dramatic effects that are still present in the old churches of Central Paris. It is an extraordinary idea to represent, as choruses of heavenly beings, those forces in the opera that see through the devil’s schemes and who understand and forgive Marguerite’s plight.

While the Berlioz opera was not a hit, his beautiful arias for Marguerite inspired Gounod, a decade and a half later, to write his own memorable music for the Marguerite character, but with the more focused plot extracted from Carré’s Faust et Marguerite.

In the 20th century it was fashionable to think of Gounod’s Faust as an old-fashioned parade of operatic hit songs, and to imagine its libretto as a kind of hackwork that did violence to Goethe’s great work of art. But Goethe’s epic, with his recounting of the progress of Faust toward an intellectual enlightenment has the feel of a remote classical masterwork, whereas the interactions of Marguerite and Faust, Siébel and Valentin, Méphistophélès and Marguerite’s neighbor Marthe in the opera born of the Gounod-Barbier-Carré collaboration, provide abundant opportunities for sophisticated 21st century staging.

The manipulative victimization of Marguerite, her undesired pregnancy, and her post-partum murder of her child is at the heart of the story that attracted Gounod and his librettists. It’s a rough and raw story right there in the midst of all of that beautiful music. There is nothing in the standard repertoire that can match this story.

And the music is great too.