Herald Tribune, WEDNESDAY, MAY 9, 2001
By David Stevens
Thomas: Mignon, Toulouse, 27 April 2001
'Mignon,' Out of Cold Storage
TOULOUSE, France: Much of the once immensely popular opera comique repertory from the latter part of the 19th century has simply been in cold storage for the last half century or so — "Carmen" excepted, of course — so the revival of Ambroise Thomas's "Mignon" by the Theatre du Capitole here qualifies as a real novelty.

It was not always so. "Mignon" reached its 100th performance at the Opera Comique in Paris only eight months after its 1866 premiere, and passed the 2,000 mark in the mid-1950s before being struck by oblivion. It even became a sinister footnote in Opera Comique history when fire destroyed the house during the first act of a performance of "Mignon" in 1887, with much loss of life.

Despite this history, much of the work's music has remained familiar, notably the mezzo title role's air "Connais-tu le pays" and the soprano's glittering "Je suis Titania." A very free adaptation of Goethe's "Wilhelm Meister," outfitted with a happy ending, it is a piece of great charm but little excitement, and it is lumbered with a silly story that depends on two principal characters suffering from amnesia until they snap out of it in the final scene.

Nicolas Joel, the Capitole's artistic director, who staged the work, went to great lengths to present "Mignon" in its best light. Susan Graham, the outstanding American mezzo soprano, took on the title role for the first time and sang it as if she owned it. She even managed to be convincing as the kidnapped waif who is saved by Wilhelm and falls hopelessly in love with him.

Joel also had to demonstrate his resourcefulness as a theater director when his tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, came up voiceless for the April 27 performance. He came up with another singer who knew the part, the Canadian Benjamin Butterfield, who sang from a proscenium box — and very handsomely — while the voiceless Kaufmann acted Wilhelm Meister onstage.

Annick Massis tossed off Philine's coloratura display pieces with great assurance, and Alain Vernhes was a warm-voiced Lothario, whose wandering mind finally snaps back in time for him to remember that he is Mignon's father. Isabelle Cals was a pert Frederic and Christian Jean was Laerte.

Much of the production's musical success was due to Emmanuel Villaume's alert and impassioned conducting, and Emilio Carcano's richly detailed painted sets, supplemented by Gerard Audier's costumes, gave the production the atmosphere it might have had when "Mignon" was new.

In Geneva, where the Grand Theatre is making its way through Wagner's "Ring" cycle at the rate of one drama per season, the most impressive element in this year's "Siegfried" is the essentially lyrical and flowing approach in Armin Jordan's musical direction, which underlined the often ignored role of this work as the scherzo in the composer's great dramatic symphony.

The production by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser seemed not entirely consistent with the modern dress approach of the "Rheingold" a couple of seasons ago. Mime's forge in the opening scene appeared to be the library of a large 19th-century manse, but by the time Siegfried arrives to confront Fafner (Alfred Reiter), the setting is a convincingly real forest and the dragon in his lair is exhaling bursts of fire that probably would have satisfied Wagner himself.

The climactic final scene, on a mountaintop whose height was adjustable by stage elevator controls, came off impressively both visually and musically, with Susan Anthony as the radiantly blonde Bruennhilde and Stig Andersen the lyrically stalwart Siegfried hurling themselves frenetically into their newfound friendship.

Albert Dohmen was an aggressive but weary Wanderer, Franz-Josef Kapellman the Alberich, and Thomas Harper the Mime, while Jadwiga Rappe was a harassed Erda in a matronly robe that had seen better days.

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