Support independent arts journalism by joining our Patreon! Currently $5/month.

About Superconductor

Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Devilish Deeds: A Fast Guide to Faust

Or, how to keep seven different versions of the same story straight.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

(This post first appeared as a Patron Exclusive on Superconductor's Patreon page. Support independent arts journalism at our Patreon.)
The Devil you say! Rene Pape as Mephistopheles in Gounod's Faust.
Photo by Catherine Ashmore for the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.
"Faust by Christopher Marlowe. Faust by Goethe. Faust by Gounod, Faust by Hector Berlioz. I tell you, anyone who touches this idea has turned it into a gold mine."--Jeffrey Cordova in The Band Wagon. (In the film, his attempt to turn a Broadway show into a modern-day production of Faust turns out to be a dreadful box-office bomb.)

When you start getting interested in classical music, it is overwhelming how many composers set versions of Faust. The story of the German scholar who sells his soul to a representative of the power of darkness in an effort to regain his youth and find love has universal human resonance. The following is a mercifully brief and incomplete guide to different versions of Faust with a focus on those that incorporate music drama and voice into re-telling the story. (That's to get me off the hook for not mentioning the "Faust Symphonies" by Liszt and Wagner!) With that, let's dive into the depths of hell for seven versions of seven different composers.

The earliest operatic adaptation of the Faust legend that's anywhere near the standard repertory (well, in Germany anyway) is by Ludwig Spohr. Spohr wrote his opera in 1816, eight years after Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had published his Faust: The First Part of the Tragedy. However the libretto of Spohr's Faust bears no resemblance to the Goethe story. It draws instead from the long history of medieval puppet plays about the German scholar who sells his soul for youth, wealth and love. The music is standard German romantic opera, with pleasing melodies and unusually, baritone parts for both Faust and Mefistofeles. The latter sends the former to hell at the opera's end.

Hector Berlioz' La Damnation de Faust was written in 1846. It is drawn (with a few changes) from Goethe's poem. Berlioz first wrote the Huit scenes de Faust before expanding the work into what he called  "légende dramatique". It is usually performed  in concert though some bold directors (like Robert Lepage) have done fully staged versions. The music is memorable throughout, from the arias for Mephistopheles and Faust, but the stakes really go up when Marguerite shows up. Her haunting "Chanson de la Roi de Thule" is one of the best things Berlioz ever wrote. In this version, Faust rides into Hell and is met by a chorus of demons singing in gibberish, because you know, Berlioz.

In terms of ambition, the Berlioz version has stiff competition from Robert Schumann. His three-part oratorio Scenes from Goethe's Faust is written on an equally grandiose scale. However, unlike Berlioz, Schumann never lived to see a complete performance of this enormous three-part work. Also, Schumann was the first composer to set Part Two of Goethe's version of the Faust legend to music. This more abstract sequel deals with Faust's redemption, the salvation of the soul of Gretchen ("Marguerite" to the French) and the ultimate ascent of both protagonists into Heaven. Long a rarity, it has been performed with increasing frequency since the 1970s.

Charles Gounod's 1859 opera Faust continues to be the most frequently staged version of the legend, although it no longer enjoys the prominent place in the opera repertory that it once had. However, while the French opera has some wonderful music, its libretto (adapted  by the team of Jules Barbier and Michel Carré from a play, Faust et Margerethe, which is itself based on the Goethe poem)) plays fast and loose with the philosophical elements that make the poem so compelling. With its sweet melodies and heavy focus on the Faust-Marguerite relationship a(lmost to the exclusion of the rest of the story) this opera is referred to as "Marguerite" when it is played in Germany.

Goethe opens Faust Part One with a bet between Mephistopheles and God. But it wasn't until Arrigo Boito's opera Mefistofele that the transaction was staged, in one of the most gloriously over-the-top openings to any Italian opera. The Prologue of Mefistofele threatens to eclipse the opera, which is a retelling of the story from the Devil's perspective. Mefistofele baffled audiences at its 1868 premiere, but after heavy revisions it became a hit. There's some really good music in the Italian romantic style, and Boito expands the story to include Faust's dalliance with Helen of Troy in the later acts. It ends with ol' horn-head being dragged off stage by angels whistling his defiance against God.

It's not a proper opera, but the second half of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8 (nicknamed by a promoter as the "Symphony of 1,000", to the chagrin of the composer and stage managers everywhere) uses massive forces to present the final scene of Faust Part Two. (The first part is a setting of the hymn "Veni, creator spiritus.") Set in a rocky gorge, it uses eight soloists, two choirs and a children's chorus to present the upward progress of a penitent (Gretchen) and the ascent of Faust's soul guarded by angels. He is  greeted by a Chorus Mysticus in the thunderous final bars. (Note, Mephistopheles does not appear in this version, which is heard only in the concert hall.)

For Doktor Faust, a work he was still working on in the last years of his life, the composer Ferruccio Busoni ignored Goethe. Like the aforementioned Spohr opera, his source was the puppet plays of the Faust legend, that tell a different sequence of events. This German opera has multiple prologues and an epilogue, and multiple endings as Busoni died before it reached a finished form.  Doktor Faust is deeply concerned with the cosmic and theological aspects of the story and minimized the importance of Gretchen. Faust is again a baritone, but the spirit of Mefistofele is a high-voiced tenor. Much emphasis is placed on choral writing in this long and unweildy opera, which nevertheless has inspired moments. In its finale. Faust falls dead in the street but his soul, represented as a young child, strides away, presumably towards heaven. Mefistofele, disguised as a night watchman, declares that an accident has occured. 

Trending on Superconductor


Share My Blog!

Share |

Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats