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by Charles Gounod

Libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré

Based on the play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


Eugène Delacroix
Mephistopheles over Wittemberg, 1839

The Cast

Faust, a scholarTenor
Méphistophélès, a demonBass
Marguerite, a young womanSoprano
Valentine, her brother, a soldierBaritone
Siebel, a young man, in love with MargueriteMezzo-Soprano
Wagner, a studentBaritone
Marthe Schwerlein, Marguerite’s neighborMezzo-Soprano

Students, soldiers, villagers, angels, demons, Cleopatra, Laïs, Helen of Troy, others.

The Story

Faust is set in Germany in the 16th Century.

Act I

Scene 1. Faust’s study.

Dr. Faust, an old philosopher and alchemist, is wearily poring over his books at daybreak. He has sought in vain for the meaning of life, and is tired of living. He pours some poison into a goblet, vowing that this dawn will be his last. His musings are interrupted by the sounds of young men and women singing outside of the joys of the new day and praising God. But God has done nothing for Faust; he cannot get his youth back, or love, or faith. He curses human happiness, faith, and science, and angrily calls upon Satan to assist him. To his astonishment and terror, Méphistophélès appears, dressed as a dashing nobleman and ready to grant his every wish. Faust refuses his offers of gold and glory: he wants youth (“ À moi les plaisirs”). Méphistophélès is delighted to comply — for a price. For here on earth, Méphistophélès will serve Faust; but, “down there,” Faust will belong to Méphistophélès. Méphistophélès urges Faust to sign the contract. When Faust hesitates, Méphistophélès shows him a vision of the beautiful Marguerite at her spinning wheel. Faust, enraptured, hastily signs the contract. Méphistophélès now offers Faust the same goblet of poison he was about to drink earlier, only now it contains the elixir of youth. Toasting the vision of Marguerite, Faust drains the goblet and is transformed into a young man. Méphistophélès urges Faust to come with him to see Marguerite in person, and both celebrate the joys of passion.

Scene 2. A fair in the marketplace of a German town.

A group of students, led by Wagner, indulge in a drinking song. Soldiers, citizens, matrons, and young girls join in the merrymaking. Valentin, a young soldier, enters, sadly contemplating a medallion that his beloved sister, Marguerite, has given him to take into battle. When Wagner and Siebel, a young boy of his acquaintance, ask him what is wrong, he replies that he is worried about leaving Marguerite unprotected, for their mother is dead. Siebel eagerly promises to look after her. Valentin is relieved and commends his sister to the Lord’s protection (“Avant de quitter ces lieux”).

Wagner urges everyone to continue their merrymaking, and begins to sing a comic song about a rat, but Méphistophélès, appearing suddenly, interrupts him. He politely asks to join in the fun and asks Wagner to continue his song, after which he will sing one. But Wagner gives way to the stranger, and Méphistophélès sings of the Golden Calf that all people worship as Satan leads the dance (“Le veau d’or est toujours debout”). Everyone joins in the song, except Valentin, who finds Méphistophélès rather strange. Wagner offers Méphistophélès some wine. He accepts, and meanwhile reads Wagner’s palm, telling him that if he goes to war, he will be killed. Siebel also wants to know his fortune; Méphistophélès tells him that every flower he touches will wither. When he adds, “No more bouquets for Marguerite,” Valentin protests. But Méphistophélès tells him that he will be killed by someone he knows.

Méphistophélès now takes up the cup of wine offered, tastes it, and spits it out in disgust. He offers the company something from his own “cellar,” and, calling upon Bacchus, he strikes a barrel, which suddenly pours forth wine. He urges the delighted crowd to drink their fill — to Marguerite. Valentin is enraged. He draws his sword, but as he is about to attack Méphistophélès, the sword breaks in two. Realizing that they are in the presence of a fiend from Hell, Valentin, Wagner, Siebel, and the soldiers hold the cross-shaped hilts of their swords toward Méphistophélès, warning him to keep off. With this protection, they all exit, leaving the shaken Méphistophélès alone. He swears that they will meet again.

Faust enters and asks Méphistophélès what is wrong. Méphistophélès, recovering, tells him that nothing is wrong, and asks what he can do for him. Faust wants to see Marguerite, but Méphistophélès warns that she is pure and protected by heaven. Faust doesn’t care; he wants to see her. Méphistophélès, ever ready to serve, will keep his promise. The strains of a waltz bring in the students and townspeople, who begin to dance. Méphistophélès suggests that Faust ask one of the young girls to dance, but he refuses; he wants Marguerite. So does Siebel, who is shyly waiting for her to arrive. At last she comes, but when Siebel approaches her, Méphistophélès bars his way, leaving the field free for Faust. Marguerite declines Faust’s gallant offer to escort her home and goes on her way. Faust, inflamed by passion, tells Méphistophélès of this setback, and Méphistophélès, taking him off, once more promises his help. The girls of the town are shocked that Marguerite has rebuffed the attentions of such a gentleman, but soon forget the incident in their enjoyment of the dance.

Act II. Marguerite’s garden.

Siebel is picking flowers for Marguerite (“Faites-lui mes aveux”), but, as Méphistophélès predicted, they all fade in his hands. Happily, however, when he dips his hand in a nearby font of holy water, the flowers he picks remain fresh, and he exhorts them to express his love to Marguerite. Méphistophélès and Faust now enter the garden, but hide when they notice Siebel, who is still picking flowers and planning to declare his love to Marguerite. He fastens the bouquet to her door and leaves. Méphistophélès promises Faust that he will deliver to her a much better gift. Faust, having impatiently dismissed him, reverently approaches Marguerite’s cottage (“Salut! demeure chaste et pure”).

Méphistophélès returns with a casket of jewels. When Faust despairs of winning Marguerite, Méphistophélès, placing the casket next to Siebel’s bouquet, assures him that this gift will win her over. The two hide in the garden as Marguerite enters. She wonders about the young man she had met at the fair and pensively sits at her spinning wheel, singing a ballad about the King of Thule and interrupting her song with musings on the handsome stranger (“Il était un Roi de Thulé”). Her thoughts then turn to her brother, and then she sees Siebel’s bouquet — and the jewel case. Hesitatingly, she opens it and is astonished to find a treasure of gems. She picks out a pair of earrings and, finding a mirror in the case, delightedly admires herself and imagines meeting the handsome stranger again (Jewel Song: “Je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir”).

Marthe Schwerlein, her neighbor, is equally delighted to see Marguerite so adorned. As they admire the jewels together, Méphistophélès and Faust come out of hiding. Méphistophélès tells Marthe that her husband is dead and sends her his greetings. Marthe faints, but Méphistophélès revives her and, telling her that her husband has left her nothing, urges her to find a replacement. Faust woos Marguerite as Méphistophélès does the same with Marthe, who is captivated. Marguerite tells Faust of her family tragedies — her mother and little sister are dead, and her brother has gone off to war. Meanwhile, Méphistophélès and Marthe have already started bickering over his having to leave, while Faust begs Marguerite to believe that he loves her. Night has fallen, and Marguerite asks Faust to leave. When he refuses, she slips away, and he follows. Méphistophélès, tired of Marthe, hides, and she runs off to find him. Left alone, Méphistophélès calls upon the night to enfold the lovers in its shadows, and upon the flowers to seduce Marguerite’s heart. He then disappears.

Faust and Marguerite return. Marguerite again asks him to leave, but he takes her hand and extols her beauty. Marguerite then plays “he loves me, he loves me not” with a flower, ending up with “he loves me.” Faust affirms that this is true and promises her eternal joy (“O nuit d’amour”). Marguerite, frightened at his passionate embrace, begs him again to leave. At last, she promises to see him at dawn the next day. She rushes into the house, throwing him a kiss as she goes.

Faust, thinking better of the plan to seduce Marguerite, attempts to flee, but Méphistophélès stops him. He makes Faust watch Marguerite at her window, musing on her love (“Il m’aime, il m’aime”). Faust, inflamed with passion, rushes to her as Méphistophélès triumphantly laughs.


Scene 1. A room in Marguerite’s house, a few months later [often omitted in performance].

A group of girls outside mock Marguerite because her lover has run away. Once, she would have done the same, but now she is the object of ridicule. She mourns for her absent lover (“Il ne revient pas”). Siebel arrives and comforts her. He swears to kill the man who betrayed her. But Marguerite still loves him. Siebel takes her hand and declares his love for her (“Si le bonheur à sourire t’invite”). Marguerite, grateful, tells him that she will go to church to pray for Faust and for her unborn child.

Scene 2. Outside Marguerite’s house.

The soldiers have returned victorious from the battlefield (Soldier’s Chorus). Valentin greets Siebel, who tells him that Marguerite is in church. After the soldiers march off, Valentin invites Siebel to his house, but Siebel refuses. When Valentin demands an explanation, Siebel begs him to have mercy on Marguerite and tries, unsuccessfully, to keep him from entering the house. Faust and Méphistophélès approach the house. Méphistophélès chides Faust for trying to see Marguerite again and reminds him that the black Sabbath is at hand. But, since Faust insists, Méphistophélès decides to get Marguerite to come out with a sarcastic serenade, accompanying himself on a guitar (“Vous qui faites l’endormie”).

Valentin rushes out of the house, smashes Mephisopheles’s guitar, and challenges either one of them to a duel. Faust, horrified to learn that this is Marguerite’s brother, draws his sword at Méphistophélès’s urging. Valentin throws away Marguerite’s medallion and attacks. Méphistophélès whispers to Faust to just thrust; he will parry for him. Valentin quickly falls, mortally wounded. Méphistophélès drags Faust away as a crowd gathers. Marguerite appears with Siebel to find her brother accusing her lover and cursing her with his dying breath.

Scene 3. A church.

Marguerite is praying. Méphistophélès, hidden from her by a pillar, summons the demons of hell to torture her soul. Still invisible to Marguerite, he mocks her former innocence and relishes her fall and damnation. In anguish, she cries out to heaven as Méphistophélès condemns her to hell.

Act IV

Scene 1. Walpurgisnacht [often omitted in performance].

Méphistophélès has brought Faust to his kingdom, where demons are revelling. He tells Faust to drown his sorrows in wine. He does so, but sees a vision of Marguerite with the mark of an axe-blade on her throat. He demands that Méphistophélès take him to her.

Scene 2. A prison [often performed as Act III, Scene 3].

Marguerite has gone mad and killed her child. As she sleeps in her cell, Faust and Méphistophélès arrive. Méphistophélès warns Faust that the scaffold is ready for her, and that he must hurry to persuade Marguerite to leave with him. Méphistophélès goes outside to wait. Faust is overcome with remorse and cries out to Marguerite, waking her. She is overjoyed at his return, but when he attempts to take her away, her mind begins to wander, reminiscing about the time they first met, and their love-scene in the garden. Méphistophélès calls out to them to come now, or all will be lost. Marguerite is terrified to see Méphistophélès as he really is — a demon from Hell. She resists their attempts to persuade her to flee, calling upon the angels to take her soul to Heaven (“Anges pur, anges radieux”). Seeing blood on Faust’s hands, she rebuffs him in horror. As a celestial choir declares her saved, she ascends to Heaven.

©1997 Linda Cantoni