Gounod fell in love with Goethe’s Faust and began to write what was to become his most popular score in 1849. Of course the original stage play had to be adapted: characters and incidents are eliminated or conflated to suit the slower pace of opera. Faust’s complex psychology is boiled down to a struggle between lust and pure love; Marguerite is simple innocence betrayed and eventually redeemed.
The opera was premiered in 1859 and was favourably received, although various alterations were subsequently made. Gounod’s mastery of orchestration and, in particular, his gift for lyricism are both reasons for Faust’s continuing popularity: these are particularly well demonstrated in Faust’s Cavatine and in Marguerite and Faust’s extended Garden Duet in Act III.
An old friend of Gounod’s, the Abbe Gay, commented after the 1859 premiere: ‘The world has got into him and has chased out Jesus Christ’. That is an apt comment on a composer who found it hard to reconcile his twin stars: the love of God and the love of sensuality, something reflected in all his compositions.