Faust and Mephistopheles. Painting by Anton Kaulbach, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
I first discovered opera in 1991, when my tenth-grade English teacher killed a couple of class periods by showing the movie Amadeus. The bits it contained of The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni were seductive enough to send me to the nearest outpost of the Wherehouse, a California record-store chain, where the classical and opera section was an afterthought. When I compare it to the contemporary infinity of Spotify, however, the limited selection now seems a kind of blessing: with so little to choose from, it was impossible to feel overwhelmed.
It was also an advantage not to have anyone telling me which operas were great and which were passé. Not until much later, for instance, would I learn that by the nineties, Gounod’s Faust was already a century past its prime. It debuted in Paris in 1859 and quickly became a worldwide hit, especially in the U.S., where it was chosen to inaugurate the newly founded Metropolitan Opera in 1883. But in time, Faust’s blockbuster status made it a byword for middlebrow entertainment, a bit like The Phantom of the Opera today. When Edith Wharton set the first chapter of The Age of Innocence at a performance of Faust, it was a way of critiquing the provincialism of 1870s New York from the vantage point of 1920. For instance, Wharton pokes fun at the fact that the opera, originally written in French, is sung in Italian, the language Americans were used to hearing in the opera house at the time.
The novel opens with the main characters watching the passionate love duet at the end of act 3, in which Marguerite, a virtuous young woman, is seduced by Faust, a middle-aged scholar who has sold his soul to the devil. As he begs to “caress your beauty,” she plays a game of “he loves me, he loves me not,” picking petals off a flower. It is a sign of Marguerite’s childlike innocence but also of her ambivalence: she has already fallen in love with Faust, but can’t be certain whether he really loves her or is only trying to get her into bed. She uses the game to convince herself that Faust’s love is genuine, and when she plucks the last petal with a triumphant “He loves me!” Faust immediately confirms it: “Yes, believe this flower … He loves you! Do you understand that sublime, sweet word?”
Wharton’s opera scene is the perfect opening to a novel about how old-fashioned people lived lives as passionate as our own, despite or even because of their Victorian constraints. Watching Faust, Newland Archer takes a complacent satisfaction in the idea that the young woman he’s engaged to marry, May Welland, is too innocent to understand the erotic rapture of Gounod’s music. “She doesn’t even guess what it’s all about,” Wharton writes. “And he contemplated her absorbed young face with a thrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiation was mingled with a tender reverence for her abysmal purity.” But it is this very purity that will lead him to lose interest in May and fall in love with her cousin, the Countess Olenska, whose scandalous past has taught her the meaning of “that sublime, sweet word.”
I didn’t know any of this when I bought a recording of Faust, on two CDs, with Nicolai Gedda as Faust, Joan Sutherland as Marguerite, and Nicolai Ghiaurov as Mephistopheles. When it came to love and seduction, at fifteen I was as inexperienced as May Welland. Still, as I listened and followed along in the libretto, I think I understood what was going on in Gounod’s music. In fact, adolescence may have been the right time to encounter it, since really Faust is about the power of adolescent emotion.
When the devil Mephistopheles appears to Faust in act 1 and says he will grant any wish in exchange for his soul, Faust turns down offers of money, glory, and power. What he wants, he says, is “a treasure that contains them all: I want youth.” Youth means sex, of course—“young mistresses … their caresses and desires”—but it is also a way of being alive, a more enthusiastic sort of participation in life. In the opera’s opening scene, Faust hears men and women on their way to work in the fields at the crack of dawn, content with their lot and praising God, and he despairs because he feels completely detached from them.
The first word he sings in the opera is rien, “nothing,” and he suffers from the kind of nihilism that today we would call depression—the feeling that nothing matters or is worth doing. In asking Mephistopheles for youth, he is really asking the devil to banish this feeling, and to return him to a time of life defined by “the energy of powerful instincts.”
The duet at the end of act 3 marks the point when his wish comes true. After seeing Marguerite from afar, and after she rebuffs his initial advances, Faust is now certain she returns his love. Gounod’s music tells us that reciprocated passion is the most totally involving experience of which human beings are capable. The two voices linger over the word eternelle, showing us that in love, time disappears.
In the same year Faust premiered, Richard Wagner completed the score of his own opera about holy and unholy love, Tristan und Isolde. In their famous duet, Wagner’s lovers also sing that they are ewig, ewig ein, eternally one. In both operas, the rapturous music prefigures, and stands in for, an erotic union that can’t be depicted on stage.
The great difference is that, for Wagner, sex is just as holy as love, of which it is the natural and necessary emblem. His love-music directly imitates the rhythm of sex, building to an unmistakably orgasmic climax. But for Gounod and his librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, who adapted the story from Goethe’s epic poem, sex is a betrayal of love, the triumph of the flesh over the spirit.
Throughout their duet, Marguerite makes clear—verbally and musically—that she wants to have sex as much as Faust does. But she is terrified of the possible consequences—illegitimate pregnancy and social disgrace—which would fall only on her. The sexual dynamics of the scene are complicated: Marguerite is telling Faust that he could get her to agree to sex, but that she hopes he won’t, because she would regret it afterward. “Leave, I tremble, alas! I am afraid! / Don’t break the heart of Marguerite!” she begs. And the duet ends with him agreeing to honor her wishes: the power of her “divine purity,” he says, “triumphs over my will.” He leaves her, promising to return in the morning.
At this moment Mephistophele suddenly appears. Mocking Faust for his failure to get Marguerite into bed—“Professor, you need to be sent back to school,” he jibes—the devil tells him to wait and listen to what she will sing when she thinks she’s alone. What follows is an aria of such unabashed desire—Marguerite sings of “trembling” and “palpitating,” waiting for Faust to return—that he betrays his promise and rushes back to her. As the two fall into bed, we hear the derisive laughter of Mephistopheles. All this talk of eternity is just a way of dressing up our biological urges; if you put a man and woman together, they’ll end up doing the same thing as any pair of animals. The consequences prove to be just as dire as Marguerite feared: she gets pregnant, Faust abandons her, and in the last act we find her in prison for infanticide, having lost her sanity.
Like Violetta and Alfredo in La traviata and Don Giovanni and Donna Elvira in Mozart’s opera, Faust and Marguerite helped me begin to understand things about love and sex that were still remote from my experience. In many ways, of course, these works were products of an alien culture: no one in my world associated sex with sin, as Marguerite does. But for that very reason, opera had more to teach me about the riskiness and perversity of desire than did Madonna and George Michael, who sold transgression on the radio. Thirty years later, I’m still perpetually surprised by the boldness of an art often thought of, by people who don’t listen to it, as old-fashioned.
Adam Kirsch is a poet, critic, and editor. His most recent collection of poems is The Discarded Life, published by Red Hen Press.
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