Ein Meisterwerk, Un Chef-d'oeuvre | Playbill

Classic Arts Features Ein Meisterwerk, Un Chef-d'oeuvre
Gounod's Faust (which opens this week at Houston Grand Opera) is the most successful opera inspired by Goethe's play. Here, one expert compares the two masterworks.

To anyone familiar with Goethe's Faust, Part One, the differences between it and Gounod's opera are striking, and comparisons are not always drawn in Gounod's favor. But any judgments must be tempered by the recognition that the one is a symbolic and philosophical dramatic fable, the work of a towering genius of late Enlightenment German culture; the other is a mid-19th-century opera devised for the expectations and tastes of the Paris musical establishment and the opera-going public.

Goethe's lengthy and complex preamble to Faust's rejuvenation and his tragic love affair with Gretchen (Margu_rite in the opera) is scarcely suitable for operatic treatment, and is reduced by Gounod's librettists to a single scene. Gounod's Méphistophélès appears to Faust after a mere 55 lines of verse in Faust's study — after Faust's summary rejection of learning and scholarship as a means to knowledge, after his half-hearted attempt at suicide, his rejection of religious faith, and his curse on human values — with the simple words: "Here I am!" Goethe's Mephistopheles, on the other hand, appears to Faust only after 1,321 lines of verse, after a Prelude on the Stage and a Prologue in Heaven, in which a wager of intriguing metaphysical and theological implications is struck between God and the Devil (based on a precedent in the Book of Job); after a long scene in Faust's study, during which he experiences a grandiose vision of the harmony of the universe (the Sign of the Macrocosm); and after a titanic encounter with the energies of creative nature (the Earth Spirit).

Goethe's Faust swings between extremes of godlike exaltation and a sense of wormlike inadequacy, and is saved from draining a cup of poison not by a chorus of young girls and peasants praising God and nature, but by the sounds of Easter hymns celebrating Christ's resurrection, which recall the unquestioning faith of his childhood. After a scene of lively public bustle outside the city gates (the equivalent of Gounod's town fair scene, of which Goethe would surely have approved), a long conversation with his assistant, Wagner, reveals Faust's bitter despair and self-recrimination for the devastation he (and his father before him) visited on a credulous and grateful population in the name of medicine. He tells of the twin souls that struggle for supremacy within his breast — carnal appetite and high idealism, the beast and the angel of the human condition; and after a vain attempt to find consolation by translating the opening words of St. John's Gospel, he finally calls up the devil Mephistopheles, who has appeared in the shape of a black dog, in a tense scene of magical conjuration.

Goethe's Mephistopheles is a fascinatingly complex, even paradoxical, devil of devastating wit, humor, and cynicism, who plays a significant part in God's cosmic scheme. Gounod simplifies his role to that of a more straightforward tempter, who nevertheless retains much of the sardonic verbal weaponry of Goethe's devil. The pact or contract between Faust and Méphistophélès is also dealt with summarily by Gounod: a simple arrangement by which the Devil agrees to serve Faust in this world, provided Faust will do the same for him when they meet "down there." Goethe extends and elaborates this straightforward bargain with an open-ended and somewhat obscure challenge by Faust: that the Devil will not be able to so delude or satisfy him with pleasure that Faust will wish to bid the passing moment stay; if he does, Faust, who is indifferent to the fate of his soul, will be content to die.

Otherwise, the main lines of Goethe's subsequent action are clearly discernible in the opera, but there are substantial differences. Mephistopheles's Song of the Flea is replaced by the Song of the Golden Calf; Faust's timid and pedantic academic assistant, Wagner, is transformed into a student who is destined to die in battle; and Siébel, who in Goethe's drama is a bald, fat drunkard with a minor role in the scene in Auerbach's Cellar in Leipzig, is given much greater prominence by Gounod in the breeches role of Margu_rite's hapless admirer and unsuccessful protector. In the opera, Margu_rite's mother is dead, whereas in Goethe, Gretchen's mother is still living; it is in order to sleep with Faust that Gretchen gives her a sleeping potion, which, because it is supplied by the Devil, kills her. Gretchen has the death of her mother, as well as of her brother and her child, on her conscience.

The opera preserves Gretchen's haunting folk song of the King of Thule, though it is abbreviated by Gounod; moreover, Margu_rite's interpolations make explicit what is allusively and subconsciously present in Goethe. The song is about the love of a high-born king for his mistress: could this grand seigneur, Faust, also be faithful to the grave? The dramatic scene in the cathedral is magnificently exploited by Gounod, but Goethe's bizarre and extended Walpurgis Night is reduced to its essentials (if we leave aside the ballet): Méphistophélès's attempts to distract Faust from the fate of Margu_rite are fruitless, and Faust's vision of her prompts him to return and try to rescue her from prison.

It is in the final scene that admirers of Goethe see the greatest betrayal of the original. The harrowing pathos of Goethe's prison scene, in which Gretchen vividly and horrifyingly anticipates her imminent public beheading, becomes a tableau of sentimental religiosity in which Margu_rite's soul is borne up to heaven: this is not Gretchen's voluntary acceptance of her legal punishment to atone for her sense of complicity in three deaths, but an apotheosis, an assumption into heaven with no reference to any secular retribution. To be sure, Goethe's Gretchen calls on the hosts of heaven to surround her and protect her; she resists the Devil, surrenders herself to God's judgment, and rejects Faust with the terrible words. "You horrify me, Heinrich!" But although a "Voice from Above" assures us of her salvation, she remains to face her execution alone, and Goethe's drama ends with a pathetic voice crying, "Heinrich! Heinrich!" from the prison cell as Faust and Mephistopheles make their escape.

Inevitably, what is missing in the libretto of Barbier and Carré is the matchless poetic expression of Goethe's verse, although there are many almost verbatim echoes of Goethe's text in the opera. In return for that loss, however, we have Gounod's music.

John R. Williams's verse translation of Goethe's Faust, Part One is published by Wordsworth Classics of World Literature. His translation of Part Two will be published this spring.

Houston Grand Opera's production of Gounod's
Faust, starring William Burden, Samuel Ramey and Tamar Iveri and directed by Francesca Zambello, runs from January 20 to February 3 at the Wortham Theater Center in Houston. Details are available at www.houstongrandopera.org.

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