In 1925, Balanchine choreographed dances for a production of Gounod’s Faust given by the Opéra de Monte-Carlo; they were danced by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. He made dances for other productions of the opera in 1935, when he was ballet master for the Metropolitan Opera, and in 1945 for the Opera Nacional, Mexico City. Walpurgisnacht Ballet was choreographed for a 1975 production of Faust by the Théâtre National de l’Opéra, danced by the Paris Opera Ballet. The New York City Ballet premiere was the first presentation of the choreography as an independent work.
The Walpurgisnacht scene occurs at the beginning of the opera’s last act, when Mephistopheles brings Faust to watch the traditional celebration on the eve of May Day when the souls of the dead are released to wander at will. Although the ballet does not depict Walpurgisnacht per se, it does build on a sense of joyful revelry.
Charles François Gounod (1818-1893) was a central figure in French music during the third quarter of the 19th century; his style influenced the next generation of French composers including Bizet, Fauré, and Massenet. Faust, produced in 1859 (the ballet music was added in 1869) made Gounod’s reputation. Faust was drastically different from French opera of the previous 30 years because of its lighter style and sentiment, which relied less on the spectacular and more on the delineation of character through the music. Gounod wrote other operas, none as successful as Faust, and other forms of music, including the Symphony No. 1 in D Major (1855) used by Balanchine for his Gounod Symphony.