Such a colorful figure hardly could have gone unnoticed, and various treatments of the good doctor’s life began to emerge almost immediately after his death. Festival puppet plays communicated the morality tale to the illiterate, and printed chapbooks began to circulate at county fairs for those who could. Johann Spiess’s Historia von Doktor Johann Fausten (1587) emerged as a popular version (sensationally translated into English as The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Dr. John Faustus) and inspired a dramatic interpretation by Shakespeare’s contemporary, Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593). Unlike Speiss’s moralizing fable, Marlowe crafted his play with a slightly lighter tone in mind. In this case it is Faust who aggressively pursues a contract with the Devil, and with Mephistopheles as his guide, he makes his way through the courts of Europe, creating tricks and feats of magic for heads of state. Throughout he is tormented by two angels — one good and one bad — and repentance is always a viable option (at least until the very end). Oddly out of character, Faust chooses that particular moment to make a pathetic plea to God for salvation, but it is too late — the Devil takes his soul as per their agreement. A moral message concludes the drama.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), a member of the Sturm und Drangmovement, bridged the gap between Enlightenment and Romanticism with his play Faust. The subject haunted him for most of his life, producing a drama in two stages (1808, 1832). It opens with a wager between God and Mephistopheles: Faust’s clouded ways give the Lord much concern, and Mephistopheles bets he can sway Faust completely to the dark side. The learned philosopher is clearly disillusioned with his science and is tempted by youth and the possibility of adventure (“Too old for play; too young to be without love”). The tragedy devoted to Gretchen is secondary and their meeting almost accidental. Other elements — her unwanted pregnancy, abandonment and eventual salvation — occur similarly as in the plot of Gounod’s opera, although in Goethe’s story, Gretchen stands trial for her mother’s murder as well. (Hoping to drug her mother so that she can meet Faust on the sly, Gretchen accidentally administers a lethal dosage.) Part II concerns itself with Faust’s spiritual journey and infatuation with Helen of Troy. Some 12,000 lines later, he himself is redeemed, rescued from the moral consequences of his sinful acts.
French playwright Michel Carré transformed Goethe’s epic drama into a boulevard drama for the Gymnase-Dramatique via a translation by Gérard de Nerval. He took several liberties to make the piece suit the palate of his bourgeois audience. Siébel, only one of several students in Goethe’s story, assumes a more prominent role as Marguerite’s suitor and Faust’s rival. Valentin also is given more dialogue — an earlier entrance establishes him as Marguerite’s guardian and protector, eliminating the unseen role of Marguerite’s mother. Marguerite is not imprisoned for murder and is punished only for her adulterous affair with Faust.
When Théâtre Lyrique director Léon Carvalho got hold of the play, he pushed for further changes. To keep in strict competition with his main rival, the Opéra, the drama had to have a more tragic and grandiose denouement. Thus, the Walpurgisnacht scene, which has little bearing on the action of the story, was reintroduced from Goethe to provide that extra element of spectacle. Marguerite is tormented for her crime of infanticide but is forgiven — the apotheosis of her ascension to the heavens being yet another scene right out of grand opéra. (It’s hardly surprising that when Gounod’s Faust plays in Germany, it is invariably titled Margarete, to remind the unwitting viewer that the opera has only a passing similarity to Goethe’s treasured masterpiece.)
The Faust saga was especially enticing to composers of the Romantic period. In addition to Gounod’s opus, a contemporary, Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), composed a staged concert work, La damnation de Faust (1846), truer to Goethe in many respects but still customized to suit the composer’s whims and the artistic trends of the day. As in Gounod’s opera, Faust contemplates drinking poison when Méphistophélès first visits (as a poodle in this particular instance) and offers to fulfill all his desires. Faust and Marguerite appear to one another in a sequence of dreams. Their union proves childless, but Marguerite is still imprisoned for killing her mother. A deal is struck when Méphistophélès offers to exchange Marguerite’s soul for Faust’s, and as she ascends to heaven, Faust is spirited to hell by horseback.
As one who achieved fame during an era when virtuosi were thought to have acquired technique by way of a deal with the dark side, pianist/composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886) did nothing to dissuade the supposition. His Mephisto Waltz No. 1 shocked audiences with its musical portrayal of Mephistopheles’s violin solo from Nikolaus Lenau’s “The Dance at the Village Inn.” The poet Lenau (1802-1850) was dissatisfied with the conclusion of Goethe’s Part II, and undaunted by the challenge posed by the great master, wrote his own Faust, audaciously proclaiming, “Faust is a common property of mankind, not a monopoly of Goethe.” Liszt composed program music to another episode from Lenau, “The Nocturnal Procession,” as well as several more Mephisto Waltzes, a Mephisto Polka and A Faust Symphony in Three Characteristic Pictures, a series of tone poems based on the story’s three main characters. Obsessed with the legend for most of his life, Liszt had hoped to write his own opera to a text by Nerval and Alexandre Dumas père, but the project never got off the ground.
The next great opera devoted to Faust was Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele (1868). Boito (1842-1918) at first produced a six-hour opera (to be performed in two successive nights), incorporating material from both parts of Goethe’s drama. After one of the more notable fiascos of the 19th century, the composer/librettist withdrew his work and revised it extensively. The version that exists today emphasizes the struggle between Mefistofele and Faust for the latter’s soul, with less attention devoted to the tragedy of Margherita. She and Helen of Troy are juxtaposed in a duality of cosmic proportions — Margherita being the real and Helen the ideal. Faust becomes the victim of the Devil rather than the instigator of his appearance (in this case he first stalks Faust dressed as a friar), and Margherita plays no part in his eventual salvation (as she does in Goethe).
Other significant operatic and choral adaptations styled after the legend include Ignaz Walter’s Doktor Faust (1787) and Louis Spohr’s Faust (1816), both of which owe their inspiration not to Goethe but to earlier works; Felix Mendelssohn’s Die erste Walpurgisnacht (1831); Richard Wagner’s Faust Overture (1840); and Robert Schumann’s Szenen aus Goethes Faust (1853). Twentieth-century literary treatments extended, among others, to the Czech and Russian traditions, with versions of the story written by Vaclav Havel (Temptation) and Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita). And contemporary musical treatments include Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (1909), the second movement being based on the end of Part II; Faust et Helena(1913), a secular cantata by Lili Boulanger; Doktor Faust(1925) by Ferruccio Busoni, based on the 16th-century puppet plays;Votre Faust(1969) by Henri Pousseur; and Giacomo Manzoni’s Doktor Faustus (1989), inspired by the novel by Thomas Mann.
Courtesy of The Minnesota Opera