Taking a break from preparing the reduced orchestration for Faust I’ve been giving some thought to the background to the opera.
Charles Gounod had ambitions to compose an opera based on the Faust legend as early as the 1840s but it took a meeting with the well-established opera librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré in 1855 to crystallise the idea.
Carré had already written a three-act play based on Goethe’s Faust, called Faust et Marguerite and it was this work that provided the basis for Gounod’s opera.
The opera was commissioned by Léon Carvalho the manager of the Théâtre-Lyrique with the proviso that his wife Caroline Carvalho would sing the role of Marguerite. Gounod finished writing the music in the autumn of 1858 and it immediately went into what turned out to be a very challenging rehearsal period.
The score that Gounod delivered contained far too much music for a normal evening at the opera so the rehearsals involved cutting many of the numbers and rearranging others to different places in the story. In all, about a quarter of the music Gounod wrote had been cut by the first performance. That wasn’t the end of the rehearsal issues; by the early dress rehearsal it had become clear that the tenor allocated to sing Faust wasn’t able to cope with the part and a replacement was brought in with only three weeks’ notice.
In spite of the difficulties in rehearsal, the first run at the Théâtre Lyrique was successful and the work was soon touring in Germany, Italy, Belgium and England. When it was revived in Paris in 1862 it was a hit and, ironically, Gounod had to write extra music so that a ballet could be added as required by the Paris Opéra. The opera remains one of the most frequently performed operas across the globe.
The Faust story is best known from its retelling by Goethe but it is based on an older tales dating back to the fifteenth century.
The models for Faustus might have included Johann Fust, who was also Johann Gutenburg’s business partner, and Johann Georg Faust, an itinerant German alchemist, astrologer and magician, although there are many earlier legends about making a pact with the devil.
The first play based on the Faust legend was probably Christopher Marlow’s Doctor Faustus which was first performed around 1590.
The first opera based on the legend was Faust by Louis Spohr, written in 1816, and the most recent is probably Doctor Atomic by the American composer John Adams, which presents Robert Oppenheimer as a 20th century ‘Faust’. The Faust legend has been used by writers and dramatists as diverse as, Stephen King, Oscar Wilde, Alexander Pushkin, W.S. Gilbert and Terry Pratchett.
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