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The Fragrant Faust

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The producers of Charles Gounod’s opera Faust had their work cut out for them. The opera had not done so well at its Paris debut in 1859, and now a Hanover premiere was in the works. Although many in the city and the surrounding countryside were excited about the upcoming performance, several newspaper editors expressed suspicion about a French composer daring to set Goethe’s German masterpiece to music, especially since several German composers had failed.

The cast included excellent singers, but the stage manager came up with one special effect that would make this production of Faust memorable for everyone in the audience, including King George of Hanover, who was blind.

During the third act, Siebel, a young man in love with Marguerite, is gathering flowers in her garden and asks them to carry his message of love, but, cursed by Mephistopheles, the flowers wither in his hands. Siebel runs to a nearby shrine and dips his hands in holy water, and the flowers he picks now remain fresh.

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As the curtain rose on Act III of the Hanover performance, the fragrance of flowers wafted from the stage and filled the entire theater. Attending that night was violinist Leopold Auer, who recalled the impact many years later:

The effect of this faint breeze of fragrance was magical. Throughout the love duo, the artificial flowers on the stage, bound by Mephisto’s spell and obeying his command, thus intoxicated not only the lovers but the entire audience as well. This scene assured the success of the work. I have often wondered why so natural and charming an effect has not been employed in other similar scenes–in the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet, which takes place in the garden of the Capulets, for instance, or in the second act of Parsifal, where the Flower-Maidens dance in Klingsor’s enchanted gardens.

But maybe the fragrant special effect had a charm as ephemeral as the flowers in Gounod’s Faust.

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