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Innocence Exploited: Gounod's 'Faust'

There's a familiar saying among the spiritually minded: "The Lord works in mysterious ways." No matter what culture or belief set it springs from, it generally refers to a benevolent lord, whose ways are aimed at achieving the greater good.

But what about the lord of the underworld? At least in art and literature, that darker lord often works in ways far less mysterious, but at times devilishly effective. One of those ways is by zeroing in on universal frailties by offering people exactly what they truly want, and even need, at the expense of beliefs they had thought were dearly held. That's what happens in one of the most famous devil stories of them all — the tale of Faust — and the tactic is at the core of Charles Gounod's operatic version of the story.

The legend of the man who trades his soul for infinite knowledge — and sensual pleasures — is centuries old, and it's famously told in the classic drama by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, written in the early 19th century. But the story of the so-called Faustian bargain goes back far earlier than that.

The historical Dr. Faust was a self-styled philosopher and fortune-teller thought to have lived sometime in the late 1400s. He studied natural science, alchemy and magic, and received at least one degree from the University at Heidelberg. An early published account of his life appeared in 1587, claiming that when he died his soul was carried off by the devil. Supposedly he'd been dabbling in the dark arts, and got exactly what he deserved.

The libretto of Gounod's Faust is based on a play by Michel Carré called Faust and Marguerite — and the opera's insights lie as much in her story as in his. Faust makes his bargain knowing full well that he'll likely face dire consequences. Marguerite is taken unawares. Her aspirations are commonplace and defensible — she longs for meaningful love and a rewarding life. When she accepts both and finds that the price is a nearly unimaginable anguish, she refuses the easy way out, relying instead on faith that her true innocence will also be her salvation.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a production of Gounod's Faust from Opera Carolina, in Charlotte. The stars are tenor James Valenti in the title role, soprano Maureen O'Flynn as Marguerite and bass Chester Patton as Mephistopheles.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.