The Faust legend.

If you don’t have cash, buying on credit is a valuable option. You get what you want but you pay later. So, why not buy the ultimate merchandise on the ultimate credit? To get whatever you want by selling your soul after you’re dead? 

Faust's writer
Johann Wolfgang Goethe

There is no lack of possible noteworthy people who supposedly did just that. Just like in the Middle Ages, envy and jealousy often bring forth rumors of all kinds of cheats and otherworldly contracts. Jimmy Page, Bob Dylan, and the most famous of them all, the blues guitarist, Robert Johnson are a few names on the list. 

The legend of Doctor Faust and his deal with the devil is an older version of the same idea. But the myth didn’t originate there. It goes back as far as Theophilus in the 6th century.

The Faust name was attached to the legend in the 16th century. Johann Georg Faust was a very real person who practiced alchemy and magic. He was the main character in Christopher Marlowe’s play, Doctor Faustus, from 1604.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe got his idea from Marlow. But he elaborated it, rewrote it, perfectionated it, and made it into one of the most important texts of all time… Faust. In fact, Ghoete worked with Faust for most of his life. And he regarded it as his most important creation… His life’s heritage. There are three distinct versions of his play:

  • Urfaust from 1775.
  • Faust. Eine Tragödie (Faust, a tragedy) from 1806.
  • Faust. Der Tragödie zweiter Teil in fünf Akten (Faust, the second part of the tragedy) from 1832.

Goethe’s play is complex and with many philosophical twists. The deal with the devil is that if he manages to make Faust feel satisfied with his life and desire to continue living, then Satan has won. There is also a God involved in the betting. Gounod’s opera concentrates on only one part of the play, namely the seduction of Marguerite, as it is described in the first part of Goethe’s play. 

composer of Faust
Charles Gounod 1863

Premiere – March 19, 1859, Théâtre Lyrique, Paris, France.

Composer – Charles Gounod

Librettist – Jules Barbier and Michel Carrè

Running Time – Approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes plus intervals. 

As always, the time stamp is an approximation. Especially the fourth Act can vary quite a bit.

Five Acts

(Sometimes the first and second Acts are merged.) 

  • Overture 5 minutes.
  • First Act: ca 18 minutes
  • Second Act: ca 27 minutes
  • Third Act: ca 50 minutes
  • Fourth Act: 30-50 minutes
  • Fifth Act: 20 minutes (… But it can be much longer depending on if there are ballets or not.)

In French

Main characters:

Faust: Lyric Tenor. An overgrown student and philosopher.

Mephistopheles: Bass-Baritone. The ultimate bad guy.

Marguerite: Lyric Soprano. A young and very beautiful maiden.

Valentine: Lyric baryton. Her brother.

Siebel: Mezzo-soprano. A young man, very much in love with Marguerite. Breeches role.

Download this short Pdf-guide. Print it, fold it, and keep it in your pocket as a help when you’re at the Opera. Please keep your phone turned off when inside the theater.

Background – The Opera Faust is set in…

Germany, sort of…

The exact spot isn’t told by Gounod, but we can imagine the central parts of Germany, Harz in Sachsen-Anholt. If we analyze Goethe’s text as a whole there isn’t really any geographic connection to any specific place. The real Johann Georg Faust could have been from Knittlingen in Baden-Württemberg or Heidelberg. But the story is so universal that it’s difficult to even set it in Germany. The location could be anywhere.

Would you like to visit Knittlingen in Germany?


Would you like to see the sites where the Opera takes place? 

Birthplace of Faust
Knittlingen, Germany Courtesy of Dg-505.



5 minutes.

First Act

Faust’s study.

The old and extremely disillusioned scholar summons his life with one word:

 – Rien! (Nothing!)

He has studied everything and tried to fill his existence with knowledge to no avail. A life without meaning, direction, or any God whispering in his ear. He decides to kill himself, but the sound of youngsters in the street makes him hesitate.

 – What can God do for me? Will he give me back love and youth? A curse on you, patience… Satan, come to me!

… And Satan shows up. What he’s offering Faust is what any man desires… Women, money, and power… But most of all, youth. In return, Faust has to give up his soul when it all comes to an end. After having seen a vision of the beautiful Marguerite, Faust signs the contract. The odd couple sets out into the world.

Second Act

The town gates.

The Act starts with a beautiful chorus, the so-called Kermesse. In it Wagner, Valentin’s friend and brother-in-arms, presents himself:

 – Vin ou bière… 

The chorus is divided into 6 groups. Each group sings its own short phrase before everybody joins in and forms a full choir. Often the chorus master, for lack of confidence in his singers, lets the singers double the melodies. Instead of 6 groups, you have 3, and instead of a lively city fair with an interesting pallet of voices, you get a perfectly normal chorus. Check if that is the case.

FaustValentine is leaving for war. Siebel, who is in love with Marguerite, promises to look after her. Valentine prays to God for the protection of his sister and sings the wonderful:

 – Avant de quitter ces lieux… 

Mephistopheles enters and sings the fiery:

 – Le veau d’or est toujours debout… (The golden calf is still standing… Nations and kings whirl in a frenzied ring, and Satan leads the dance!)

Then he does a couple of demonic tricks:

  • He tells Wagner he will die in the war.
  • He tells Valentine he will die at the hands of someone he knows.
  • He curses Siebel. He will never be able to handle flowers without them withering by his touch.
  • When Valentine attacks him, his sword shatters in the air.

It is now obvious to all whom they are dealing with. The town folks sing the short but powerful:

 – De l’enfer qui vient emousser… 

They leave, and Faust arrives. He wants to meet Marguerite but Mephistopheles explains that it’s not as simple as that.

 – Her virtue defends her from us… And Heaven protects her!

Still, Faust manages to talk to her briefly. But she denies his offered arm and continues passed him, which makes Faust fall even deeper in love…

Third Act

The first Marguerite in Gounod's opera Faust
Caroline Miolan-Carvalho. The first Marguerite.

Marguerite’s garden

The third Act shoots away with a row of highlights. First, there’s Siebel’s delightful song in which he expresses his love for Marguerite. He picks her some flowers but due to Mephistophele’s words, they wither in his hand. He uses holy water to remove the curse:

 – Faites-lui mes aveux… (Blooming flowers, make my confession… Carry my wishes…)

Gounod skips the first beat in every phrase of the 4/4 melody. It gives it a nervous touch and stumbling rhythm that perfectly paints Siebel’s adolescent love. 

Mephistopheles and Faust join him. Seeing his modest flowers, Mephistopheles decides to get a more convincing gift for the young lady. Alone, Faust sings his big Aria:

 – Salut! Demeure chaste et pure… (Hail, dwelling chaste and pure, innocent and divine…)

His love for her grows, and he hesitates to move forward, sensing her innocent and pure nature. In his heart, he knows what he’s doing wrong. He knows the devil can only bring misfortune to the girl. He actually decides to leave, but his companion stops him.

There is a high c at the end that seems completely unmotivated. Gounod didn’t imagine it as it’s usually sung, with full voice. It should be very soft and delicate. That is almost impossible for a modern lyric tenor (unless he’s called Giuseppe di Stefano). We just have to accept that a good, strong high c, still is worth the money.

Now it’s Merguerite’s turn. She sings what roughly corresponds to a Cantabile, The Ballad of the King of Thulè. Then she continues with the famous Cabaletta also called The Jewel Song:

 – Ah! je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir… (… Is it you, Marguerite, or is it the daughter of a King?)

Because in the meantime, Mephistopheles has returned with a box filled with the most fantastique and valuable jewels. Siebel’s flowers swiftly become rather cheap in comparison.

The jewels do the trick, and Marguerite is slowly surrendering.  Mephistopheles has announced to Marthe the death of her husband and does not waste any time before he woos her away from the two lovers. The long final scene finishes with the love duet:

 – Laisse-moi, laisse-moi contempler ton visage… 

Marguerite sends him off with the promise to meet him tomorrow. And Faust again seems to be tempted to honor Marguerite and respect her purity. But Mephistopheles steps in and sends him back.

 – I’m sending you back to school… See, she’s opening her window…

… And the seduction of Marguerite is completed.

Fourth Act

First Part – Marguerite’s chamber.

(The first scene is sometimes omitted. Often the order of the second and third scenes is changed to finish the Act with the death of Valentin.)

Marguerite is now abandoned not only by Faust but also by everybody else. She is an outcast, carrying Faust’s child, or has possibly already given birth. Siebel is the only one still standing by her, still honoring his promise to Valentine. Meguerite sings:

 – Il ne revient pas… (He doesn’t come back…)

Second Part – The town square.

The soldiers come back and they sing the very famous male chorus showstopper:

 – Gloire immortelle de nos aïeux… 

Among them, there’s obviously Valentine (but not Wagner, who died…). When he hears about Marguerite’s misery he runs to her. But outside her window, Mephistofele, in Faust’s company, sings a mocking serenade…

 – Vous qui faites l’endormie… 

Valentine rushes out, he and Faust duel and Faust kills him (… with a little help from the devil). But before he dies, he utters a terrible curse at his sister whom he blames for having entered a path of pleasure and immoral:

 – A curse on you! I die at your hands and fall as a soldier should! If God forgives you, may you be cursed in this world!

Third Part – The church

Marguerite tries to pray for forgiveness for her “sins”. But in her despair, the only thing she can hear is the sound of blame and condemnation. She is trying to pray but a chorus of demons prevents her. She still holds on to her faith though.

Fifth Act

First Part – The Walpurgis Night.

Mephistophele teleports Faust to a cave in the Harz mountains. There he’s seduced by a sea of beautiful women… And not only women of the present. The devil has summoned every queen and princess of the past as well. The night proceeds in ecstasy and orgies. 

the scholar and the devilThis is where the traditional ballet of the Grand Operà is exhibited if the director so has chosen. Nowadays, that is often not the case though.

But Faust isn’t satisfied. He sees an image of Marguerite and the concubines disappear. 

Second Part – The Prison.

Marguerite is imprisoned and is to be hanged at daybreak for the murder of her child. Mephistopheles lets Faust into the prison cell. He tells Faust that he, the devil, doesn’t have the power to save her:

 – Persuade Marguerite to follow you. Your human hand must set her free…

But Marguerite doesn’t want to be saved from the hangman, although she still loves Faust. She sees Mephistopheles and recognizes him. Then she sees Faust’s bloody hands, rejects him, and falls to the ground. 

The Angels sing (chorus off-stage) as her soul rises to heaven:

 – Christ est ressuscité! (Christ is risen!)

What to look out for.

First Act

Just check how they do the transfer from the old Faust to the young Faust. Sometimes they have another artist, much older, to sing Faust as old.

Second Act

Curtain-up –Vin ou bière… The Kermesse. Are there 6 groups or less?

6 minutes – Avant de quitter ces lieux… Valentine’s big aria.

11 minutes – Le veau d’or est toujours debout… Mephistopheles’ satanic, rythmic and captivating song.

16 minutes – De l’enfer qui vient emousser! The towns people drives away the devil with the cross.

Third Act

1 minutes – Faites-lui mes aveux… Siebel’s flower song.

6 minutes – Salut! Demeure chaste et pure… Faust’s big aria.

20 minutes – Ah! je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir… Marguerite’s Jewel song.

36 minutes – Laisse-moi, laisse-moi… The beautiful melody inside the love duet.

Fourth Act

If the first part is in Marguerite’s room or in the church?

Does the Act finish with the death of Valentine?

The beginning of the town square part – Gloire immortelle de nos aïeux… The soldiers come back from the war.

2 minutes after the chorus ends – Vous qui faites l’endormie… Mephistopheles’ sarkastic serenade outside Marguerite’s window.

Fifth Act

Curtain-up – The Walpurgis night.

6 minutes – If there are ballets they should be after the chorus.

Ending – Christ est ressuscité! The angels carry her to heaven.

Something about Gounod’s opera.

Opera in 1800
The inside of the Paris opera around the time of Faust’s premiere.

The Faust myth is an extremely popular basis for all kinds of works of Art. The musical stage has seen it continuously in the form of operas, symphonies, ensembles, single-instrument pieces, and songs. As for the operas, I could mention just these few:

  • La Damnation de Faust by Hector Berlioz.
  • Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito
  • The Fiery Angel by Sergei Prokofiev
  • Historia von D. Johann Fausten by Alfred Schnittke
  • The Rake’s Progress by Igor Stravinsky

… But many more have been composed, which are not in the modern opera repertoire.

When Gounod’s opera premiered in Paris on March 19, 1859, it had spoken dialogue, as was the standard at Théâtre Lyrique. It wasn’t an immediate success although well received. In fact, many people around the creators, and even the libretists themselves, Jules Barbier and Michel Carrè were skeptical. They thought the plot was worn out, and lacked dramatic strength. Gounod strongly believed in his creation though and continued working on it.

For example, Valentine’s aria was introduced in London for the English version. Gounod simply took a melody from the ouverture and expanded it into the wonderful Baritone aria. For the premiere at Paris Operà in 1869, Gounod had to change the spoken dialogue into recitatives. He also had to add a ballet at the beginning of the last act.

Faust is an opera that has continued to gain popularity during the centuries. Gounod’s vision turned out to be a winning concept. Today, Faust is one of the most popular and most-played French operas.  

Charles Gounod and the Faith.

Charles Gounod was deeply religious during his whole life. In his youth, he wanted to become a priest to be able to dedicate himself completely to his Catholic faith. In the opera, many details display Gounod’s ideas. Compared to Goethe’s much deeper and more variable freethinker philosophy, Gounod walked a straighter, simpler path. 

Mephistopheles is portrayed as a truly demonic character who only does evil. He doesn’t have any funny traits, but he’s really just cruel. Siebel’s flower curse can be cured by simple holy water. At the end of Act 2, Valentine, Wagner and the people defend themself by just holding up the cross-shaped hilts against the devil, etc…

Gounod also dropped God’s responsibility. In Goethe’s play, God makes a bet with Satan about Faust’s soul, much like the book of Job in the Bible. God permits Mephistopheles to lead Faust astray hoping that he may learn from his mistakes.

Priests late 1800
Gounod could have been a priest, and he never would have given us this wonderful opera…

The last scene is powerful in its simplicity. By trusting God, you can go to heaven even if you sin. And the sin concept is very straightforward. Marguerite is sinning by not doing anything but falling in love. For a girl, that simple emotion condemns her, and even her brother deserts her for that.

Let’s hope she gets her due reward in heaven and can forget Faust… who, after all, is just a lustful old fool.

Download this short Pdf-guide. Print it, fold it, and keep it in your pocket as a help when you’re at the Opera. Please keep your phone turned off when inside the theater.