The Dance in France: Faust

Italians love the human voice. Germans love their orchestras. But the French love their ballet.

King Louis XIV refashioned French culture. - photo in public domainIn the early 1800s, popular tastes in opera ran toward Rossini, but France was becoming the epicenter of the opera world. Rossini’s final opera Guillaume Tell, (aka William Tell), written for the Paris Opera, paved the way for a spanking-new genre: Grand Opera.

French opera started to develop in the sixteenth century at the court of Henri IV, but it took root in the seventeenth century during the reign of Louis XIV, who resolved to refashion French culture in his own image. And why shouldn’t he? With multiple monikers such as Louis le Grand and The Sun King, (not to mention Monsieur le Roi and “His Most Christian Majesty”), and a reign encompassing seventy-two years, he had every right to such ambitions. France was the leading European power during his time. Having started his dominion at age four, he felt entitled to make the rules. And he declared dance the apotheosis of court entertainment.

Louis was not only a formidable patron of the arts. He was committed to his love for the ballet. During the first half of his reign he himself had danced in three of Molière’s comédies-ballets. These plays featuring ballet with some sung elements gradually evolved into the fully operatic opéra-ballet form, which always included dance as a dominant feature. The Italians tried mightily to introduce their own operatic style to the French court, but les français (bien sur) preferred their own unique genre.

The father of French Opera, Jean-Baptiste Lully -Photo in public DomainHaving established the Paris Opera Ballet in 1661, it was natural for King Louis to designate a former ballet dancer to run the show. Ironically it was the Florentine-born Giovanni Battista Lulli (aka Jean-Baptiste Lully) who was appointed to this prize position. Lully may have been Italian by birth, but he founded a lasting French operatic tradition and happily embraced the title, “Father of French opera.”

Lully, along with his successors Rameau and Gluck, worked to maintain ballet as an art form equal to the accompanying music. Thus a succession of dance-centric operas developed for Gallic tastes set the stage for Rossini’s eventual entry into the grand opera scene. Meyerbeer’s first three operas in the genre caused a sensation in this new operatic climate. Then, in mid-century, following the underappreciated operas of Berlioz, a new generation of French-born operatic composers arose, initially dominated by Charles Gounod.

Gounod, while not as innovative as Berlioz, was open to new musical influences. He also enjoyed writing operas on literary themes. Thus he based his first theatrical success, Faust, on the Goethe play. Premiered at the Théâtre Lyrique in 1859, Faust had a rocky start but ultimately became an enormous hit worldwide.Faust's composer, Charles Gounod -Photo in public domain It was chosen for the very first opening night of the Metropolitan Opera in 1883 and still ranks eighth on the Met’s list of most frequently performed operas. By the time Gounod died in 1893, Faust had received over one thousand performances in Paris alone. Up until the 1950s, it was considered the most popular opera of all time; that is, until Bizet’s Carmen supplanted it.

No matter. Both are French, and to a great extent dominated by dance and ballet music.

Finding a “definitive” version of Faust is no easy task. I can attest to this, having performed it numerous times at the Met and New York City Opera. It would seem there is no “perfect” rendering of this opera. Since Gounod’s manuscript score has been elusive over the centuries, it is difficult to determine exactly what the composer had in mind; and in every production it remains a huge challenge to decide which parts to include, and the order of the action. Gounod’s conception came to fruition only after twenty years of creative processing, and even then the original Paris production was a far cry from the composer’s own vision. He, in fact, was much too accommodating to the various theatrical demands of the opera’s interpreters. Starting with the first production directors have felt free to cut, shorten, and rearrange the music and the action.

As to the sublime ballet music, there is so much of it (seventeen minutes, to be exact) that it is usually performed separately as a symphonic suite. (Balanchine choreographed the Act V Walpurgisnacht as a stand-alone ballet.) In the 1869 Opéra production, the dance music was inserted during Act II; needless to say it interrupted the dramatic flow of an opera that was already inordinately long. For my part, I’m content to revel in the balletic choruses (e.g. the Act I summer celebration chorus) and waltz-type arias (e.g. Marguerite’s Jewel Song) that regale the score. As an orchestra player, these pieces fulfill my craving for gorgeous Gounod dance melodies, at least in an opera four-plus hours in length. From an audience point of view, if you feel cheated by not hearing the seven-movement Musique de Ballet in your next Faust foray, it is included in the appendix of the acclaimed 1993 recording with Jerry Hadley, Samuel Ramey and Cecelia Gasdia in the lead roles.

No matter which version, kudos to Gounod for delighting us with his transcendent Faust music, balletic or otherwise. For that, we are fortunate indeed.

King Louis would be proud.