Gounod – Aria: Vous qui faites l’endormie (from Faust)

by Max Derrickson

Basses and Baritones had a long fight to make it to the top in opera.  When opera began around 1600 with Monteverdi, any roles of importance were given to the higher ranges, the sopranos, tenors, or counter-tenors, and the lowest voice lurked about to fill things out in the story.  Within a hundred years or so, bass/baritones began to get typecast as the sinister ones, belching profundity and doom, and the Basso Profundo was born.  And then, just before Mozart’s time, a new role emerged called the Basso Buffo, the role being the main source of comic relief in an opera, often the butt of shenanigans and jokes.  It was a great character that both Mozart and Rossini exploited to full effect, but it required a great deal of skill and acting ability, which ironically led to progress.  It was also around this time, [. . .]

Aria: Vous qui faites l’endormie (from Faust)
Charles Gounod (1818 – 1893)

French composer Charles Gounod, along with Richard Wagner, became Verdi’s chief opera rivals in the second half of the 19th Century.  When Verdi was reluctant to accept the commission for Aida in 1871, the producers goaded him into action by threatening to ask Gounod to write it.  After all, Gounod’s Faust, 1859, was so popular the world over that when New York’s Metropolitan Opera House opened its doors in 1883, Faust was its obvious inaugural choice of operas.

Gounod set Part I of Goethe’s timeless story of Faust in a lavish Grand Opera in five acts complete with ballet.  The famous story, of course, is about the aging Doctor Faust, a staid scholar, who makes a dreadful agreement with Mephistopheles (the Devil) to regain his youth and fill himself with superhuman knowledge and the carnal riches of life, in return for Faust eventually becoming Mephistopheles’s servant in Hell.  The wonderful twist is that Faust and Mephistopheles set out into the world together as a duo,[. . .]  Although Gounod harkens back to the style of the Basso Profundo being the evil villain from olden times, in Faust the role is mischievously vibrant as a co-lead with the Tenor.  Thus, some of the best arias in opera history fall upon the Bass/Baritone.

One of the great arias in the repertoire, then, is sung by Mephistopheles in Act IV.  Faust has lusted after the pure and innocent Marguerite, and Mephistopheles has done everything to set up the tryst –[. . .]  But in a devilish act of hubris, Mephistopheles persuades Faust to see Marguerite again.  Outside her window, as Marguerite suffers her life as an outcast from society and from Faust’s affections, Mephistopheles brings a guitar, [. . .] the words drip with contempt while calling her by the wrong name, and punctuated with demonic laughing.