Charles-François Gounod emerged as one of the leading figures in French music during the latter part of the 19th century. Although the composer never achieved the titanic stature of Wagner or Verdi, his opera Faust once rivaled in popularity some of their most successful works.
The young Gounod showed early artistic talent, but his parents were determined that he study law. His preference for music eventually won, and at the age of 16, the rebellious teen began the official path of a typical 19th-century composer in France.
At the Paris Conservatoire Gounod studied with Halévy, Le Sueur and Reicha. Winning the Prix de Rome in 1839, he embarked upon a two-year study in Italy, during which time the composer first became familiar with the Faust legend.
Returning to France, Gounod quickly obtained a position in a mission church but was fortunate to befriend an influential soprano, Pauline Viardot, who maneuvered a commission for him from the Paris Opéra. Sapho, set to a libretto by Emile Augier, was a succès d’estime — but not a huge box-office draw. It was dropped after six performances.
Meanwhile, Léon Carvalho, new director of the Théâtre Lyrique, courted the composer with the prospect of producing Faust. It was soon discovered that another theater, the Théâtre de la Porte-St-Martin, had planned an extravagant spectacle based on the Goethe play, and Gounod’s Faust was put on hold. The impresario tried to appease the composer with a comic libretto, Le médecin malgré lui, based on a play by Molière.
Although the libretto was beyond reproach and the music critically well-received, Le médecin again was not a triumph. In the meantime, the St. Martin Theater had postponed its production of Faust, and Carvalho gave Gounod the nod to complete his opera. Its resounding success in France and all over Europe elevated Gounod to a composer of international acclaim.
Over the next few years, Gounod produced four more operas: Philémon et Baucis, a mythological comedy that tried to capitalize on Jacques Offenbach’s hugely successful Orphée aux enfers; La colombe, an opéra-comique about an impoverished nobleman’s attempts to win the heart of a wealthy countess; La reine de Saba, another commission for the Opéra based on the biblical tale of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; and Mireille, a love story set in French Provence. None of these works ever achieved the special appeal of Faust, although Mireille became a staple of the Opéra-Comique’s repertory for many years. The composer’s life began to unravel — his unsteady career was plagued by claims of Wagnerism by the French press as a result of his association with the German composer. A nervous condition had resurfaced, and rehearsals of Mireilleput Gounod’s friendship with Carvalho to the test — at one point their communication was reduced to the exchange of notarized letters. He eventually mended his relationship with the impresario in time to produce another work for the Théâtre Lyrique,Roméo et Juliette. The opera proved to be Gounod’s greatest immediate success.
At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, Gounod moved his family to England. There he continued work on the score ofPolyeucte, an opera he had begun following a trip to Rome in 1869. He befriended an enthusiastic fan, Georgina Weldon, who soon began to manage his affairs. A romantic relationship evolved, and as soon as Gounod’s incensed wife left to return to Paris in 1871, the couple’s affair became widely known.
In 1874, the composer abruptly left England to return to France and his family. In his haste, he left the nearly complete score ofPolyeucte behind, and the embittered Georgina was reluctant to part with it. Gounod instigated legal proceedings and began to reproduce the opera from memory, a task that took nearly a year. Meanwhile a settlement with Georgina was finally reached. She returned the score — with her name scrawled in crayon across every page.
Polyeucte was not produced until 1878. In the meantime Gounod had received yet another offer from Carvalho, who had assumed directorship of the Opéra-Comique after Camille du Locle’s bankruptcy. Cinq Mars was set to a story of political conspiracy and intrigue by Alfred de Vigny, styled after the novels of Sir Walter Scott. Its reception echoed those of his early operas — the work was neither offensive nor memorable in any way.
Le tribut de Zamora was Gounod’s last work for the stage. His final years were spent composing sacred music, and his reputation had begun to decline as the more austere Third Republic frowned upon products of Second Empire frivolity. TodayFaust and Roméo et Juliette remain in the repertory, and in addition to leaving behind these masterpieces, Gounod is perhaps most remembered for his restoration of a higher purpose in French theater at a time when it was needed most.
Courtesy of The Minnesota Opera