The Deal of a Lifetime: Gounod's 'Faust'

            As ACT ONE opens, an aging and decrepit Faust is alone in his study, brooding over his lifelong failure to find wisdom. He decides to kill himself. But just as he's about to drink poison, he hears the songs of peasant girls and workers in the distance. Envious, he curses their joy and cries out to the powers of hell.

            Méphistophélès appears in a puff of smoke and offers up a bargain.  He'll grant Faust all the answers to life, and all its passion. In exchange, Faust will yield his soul. Faust hesitates to sign the contract, but Méphistophélès conjures an image of a beautiful young woman -- Marguerite. Seeing that, Faust eagerly signs on the dotted line and is transformed into a young man. He and the devil set off for a life of adventure.

            People are gathering during the Easter fair as ACT TWO begins. A young soldier named Valentin, Marguerite's brother, is headed off to war. Marguerite has given him a medallion, and he clutches it while praying that his sister will remain safe while he's away. He sings a farewell in the beautiful aria "Avant de quitter ces lieux" -- "Before I leave this place."

            Students and other soldiers start to carouse. A student named Wagner begins a cheeky song but is quickly interrupted by Méphistophélès, who sings a hymn to greed, the well-known aria "Le veau d'or" -- "The calf of gold." Then Méphistophélès makes a smart-alecky toast to Marguerite. Valentin finds it insulting and raises his sword, but it shatters. Other soldiers raise their swords in the form of crosses. Méphistophélès cowers and predicts that Valentin will die in battle.

            The crowd begins to waltz. Faust offers to escort Marguerite home, but she declines. Méphistophélès laughs, promising to help Faust win her over.

            At the start of ACT THREE, the young soldier Siebel is gathering flowers for Marguerite in her garden. Méphistophélès has predicted that the blossoms will wither and die as soon as they're plucked, and that's exactly what happens. Siebel vows to warn Marguerite about the untrustworthy duo of Faust and Méphistophélès, just as the two of them arrive.

            Faust is humbled by the sight of Marguerite's modest home and sings a tender aria about her "Chaste and pure dwelling." Meanwhile, Méphistophélès produces a box of jewels and leaves them at Marguerite's door. He and Faust hide, as Marguerite comes to sit at her spinning wheel. She's excited to discover the sparkling gems and sings the famous "Jewel Song."

            Faust declares his love for Marguerite while Méphistophélès distracts a nosy neighbor named Marthe. After a brief hesitation, Marguerite falls into Faust's arms. The seduction is complete, and as the lovers embrace passionately, the evil laughter of Méphistophélès echoes in the garden.

            By the start of ACT FOUR many months have passed. Marguerite has given birth to Faust's child, but he has deserted her. We find Marguerite in church, praying for forgiveness.  When she hears the voice of Méphistophélès, taunting her, she faints.

            Meanwhile, the soldiers, including Marguerite's brother Valentin, have returned from battle.  When he asks after his sister, Siebel tells him she has gone to the church. Valentin waits at Marguerite's house, where he finds Faust and Méphistophélès. Méphistophélès sings a lewd serenade and Valentin demands to know who has disgraced his sister. As Valentin and Faust fight a duel, Méphistophélès intervenes and Faust accidentally kills Valentin. As Marguerite and other villagers rush in, Valentin curses her with his dying words.

            ACT FIVE begins as Méphistophélès presides over Walpurgisnacht, the night when the souls of the dead gather on a mountaintop. Faust is haunted by an image of Marguerite. She has been imprisoned for the murder of her child and he insists on going to her immediately. She's happy to see him at first, and they sing a love duet, but Faust soon realizes that she's losing her mind.

            When Méphistophélès emerges from the shadows, Marguerite prays to the angels to save her. Méphistophélès and Faust urge her to come away with them. When Marguerite refuses, the two men realize they are defeated. Faust again becomes the frail old man he was when the story began, as Méphistophélès returns to the underworld.  With Faust looking on, heartbroken, the angelic chorus proclaims Marguerite's forgiveness and salvation, and her soul rises to heaven.