Ambroise Thomas - Mignon
Grand Théâtre de Genève, 2012
Frédéric Chaslin, Jean-Louis Benoît, Sophie Koch, Paolo Fanale, Diana Damrau, Nicolas Courjal, Carine Séchaye, Emilio Pons, Frédéric Goncalves, Laurent Delvert
Geneva, 16 May 2012
There seems to have been some initial confusion over whether Mignon was destined to be a grand opera or an opéra comique. The libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré was first offered to Meyerbeer, who refused it, then Gounod, before being taken on by Ambroise Thomas now in his 50s at the time of writing in 1866, as a commission for the Opéra Comique in Paris. Based on Goethe’s famous Bildungsroman, ‘The Apprentice Years of Wilhelm Meister’ (1795), there were however certain changes that required that altered the original intentions of the work, such as expanding the role of Philine for a lyric soprano and rewriting the ending from the tragic conclusion of the original. Whatever the intentions of the original librettists, Thomas found a perfect expression for the work in the lighter of the two opera styles, composing with pleasant melodies as well as with delicacy for the emotional content and Mignon was a great success, the greatest of his career thus far (two years before his next success in Hamlet), the work even surviving past the fire that destroyed the Salle Favart in 1887 to run beyond a 1000 performances in Paris.
Those qualities in Thomas’s writing, particularly in the characterisation assigned to each of the main roles, was certainly evident in the 2012 revival production of the opera at the Grand Théâtre de Genève, which benefitted moreover from the outstanding casting of the French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch in the title role of Mignon. A young innocent of indeterminate gender who has been brought up by gypsies, Mignon has been forced to perform what seems to be a rather humiliating egg dance for the public, finally refusing to continue any longer at a show in the courtyard of a country inn where Wilhelm Meister is present. Taking pity on her predicament and attracted to the ambiguous nature of this strange creature dressed in boyish clothes, Wilhelm buys her freedom from Jarno, the leader of the gypsies. To protect her from the attentions of a crazed troubadour, Lothario, mad from the loss of his daughter, Wilhelm allows Mignon to accompany him as his page.
References to such figures, many derived from Goethe’s Mignon, are common in literature in figures such as Lolita as well as in the cinema - Gelsomina in Fellini’s La Strada, for example - but some such as Lulu have also travelled through to opera and continue to exercise the same strange fascination. In some respects, the Mignon figure, looking for a father-figure, a lover, a husband, contains a purity which can inspire the artist (who can forget the poetic raptures of Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita?), but the same figure can also reflect darker and more ambiguous impulses that are protective and dangerously possessive. It’s perfect material for musical and poetical expression, but while there is a great deal of such qualities in Thomas’s writing, his opera Mignon perhaps doesn’t always reflect both sides of the coin with equal success. It’s a lovely little opera to listen to, but perhaps a little old-fashioned and restricted in this respect by the conventions of the opéra comiquestyle.
It could be enlivened certainly through inventive stage direction and perhaps an updating of the settings, but there was nothing like that in Jean-Louis Benoît’s production for Geneva. If the props however were reduced to a bare minimum on the stage, it was to leave all the more room for it to be filled with singers and chorus, all dressed in fine, period costumes. A little character was introduced with a humorous setting up of chairs which became a game of skittles every time someone made a rushed entrance to the stage through them, and there was a minor skit involving the flames that destroy Baron Rosemburg’s castle at the end of the second act, but little else of note to suggest a theme or concept being explored. Even so, with the fine costume designs and the actual stage direction - Diana Damrau in particular being a swirling, sparkling presence as Philine - the production looked well and was never less than effective for the purposes of a traditional, theatrical presentation.
It was left to the singers to bring whatever they could to the roles through the performances. Sophie Koch brought a fabulous air of wistful melancholy to the famous aria ‘Connais-tu le pays où fleurent l’oranger?/Le pays des fruits d’or et les roses vermeilles?’ (“Do you know the land where orange flowers bloom?/A land of golden fruit and crimson roses?”), which along with her boyish appearance, lent some interesting ambiguity to the androgynous character and how she is perceived by both Wilhelm and Lothario. There was a hint here of other depths that could be explored, but neither Thomas’s music not the direction seemed capable of drawing anything more out of this as the performance progressed. Koch however was fabulous in the role, singing a choice mezzo-soprano role wonderfully. Taking on a broad range of roles that stretch from this light lyrical opéra comique to heavier Wagner roles, there really doesn’t seem to be anything she isn’t capable of, and she sounds more and more impressive each time I hear her.
It was a double luxury then to also have Diana Damrau as Philine in this production. She played a crucial part in the success of the production, and her role is also crucial to making the opera work so well. Her flowing coloratura in the soprano range certainly adds considerable colour to the range of voices as well as some well-needed sparkle to a story that lacks the depth that it might have acquired in a tragic grand opera style, but there’s much more to her character than that and the role serves a vital dramatic function. Philine, along with sidekick Laërte as the leaders of a bohemian troupe of actors, is the catalyst that brings Wilhelm Meister and Mignon together, but Philine also has other outgoing feminine qualities and her flirting introduces the necessary element of conflict that pushes the romantic element to the fore. Her extravagant character and the extravagant singing that goes along with it were well-served here by Diana Damrau. Her ‘Je suis Titania la blonde’ polonaise, given after a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the baron’s castle, was every bit as rivetting and magnetic as it ought to be.
The two exceptionally talented leading ladies were well supported by an excellent Paolo Fanale as Wilhelm Meister, by Nicholas Courjal’s beautifully lucid baritone Lothario, and by Emilio Pons as Laërte. All of them sang very well, but none were really able to make much more of the parts beyond the limitations of the original characterisation and within the constraints of the unexceptional stage direction. A good energetic and entertaining performance from Carine Séchaye in the trouser-role of Frédéric also added to the overall quality and dynamic of the singing. Frédéric Chaslin conducted the orchestra of the Suisse Romande delightfully through Thomas’s lovely score, the production using the original version of the opera with spoken dialogue (only a few short passages) rather than the later revised German version with recitative that, like Thomas’s similar rearrangement of Hamlet, attempted to come closer to the tragic ending for an audience more familiar with the original work. The happy ending however seemed very much in line with the lightness and delicacy of touch that characterised the whole production here in Geneva.