By Hugh Canning
Thomas: Mignon, Toulouse, April 2001
Victory Over the Microbes
Ambroise Thomas's once hugely popular opéra-comique has all but disappeared from the repertoire. Based on Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprentice Years, Mignon has, like Gounod's Faust, been dismissed in the poet's native land as a frivolous travesty of one of the great novels in the German language: the Bard of Weimar's proto-romantic words and ideas swathed in perfumed, frilly French-knickers music. True, Mignon is not an "important" opera, but in a stylish performance it can be an entertaining one, and a beautiful vehicle for a star mezzo with the elegance and vulnerability to do justice to the waif-like title character.

For his new production (to be seen at Paris's Theatre du Châtelet in 2005), the Théâtre du Capitole's artistic director, Nicolas Joël, turned to the American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham to make her first appearances anywhere in the title role. Bad luck struck on the first night — 20 April — when a virulent cold laid Graham low and a novice Mignon had to go on at very short notice. By the end of the run, the illness — which had also affected members of the orchestra — robbed Jonas Kaufmann's Wilhelm of his voice. He had to mime his part to the singing of the Canadian tenor Benjamin Butterfield, who had been intercepted at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport on his way home and sang, quite creditably, from a stage box.

Graham's velvet-toned account of Mignon's famous "Connais-tu le pays?" and her delectably agile singing of her Styrienne belied the state of her health.

Inevitably, these were far from ideal circumstances in which to experience Ms. Graham's Mignon, but by the second of the two performances under review, she was on the way to recovery and had put behind her a couple of under-pitch high notes. Graham sings French music with great stylistic sympathy and her delivery of the language is clear and fluent (if not wholly idiomatic). Her velvet-toned account of Mignon's famous "Connais-tu le pays?" and her delectably agile singing of her Styrienne belied the state of her health. If not exactly a waif-like figure, Graham's Mignon is both enigmatic and passionate; at her Act II entrance into Philine's boudoir disguised as Wilhelm's valet, she looks ideally androgynous, almost Octavian-like — "ni jeune fille, ni garçon," as Philine describes her in Act I. Apart from some frozen tableaux in the opening scene, Joël directed a broadly traditional mise-en-scène — updated to the 1820s — with sumptuous-looking representational decors by Emilio Carcano of a kind that have virtually disappeared from opera in mainstream European theatres (at least outside Italy). Although theatrical avant-gardists might scoff, the director's decision not to overload this fragile work with too much psychology and Germanic "innovation" was probably the right one.

Apart from Graham, the vocal honors were stolen by Annick Massis, a charming Philine who sang her show-stopping Polonaise with a delectably sweet timbre, even if her vocal pyrotechnics didn't really flash and sparkle; hers is a typically French light coloratura, though with less adamantine tone than that of her compatriot Natalie Dessay. As Mignon's long-lost father, Goethe's Harfenspieler Lothario, the veteran Alain Vernhes sometimes sang roughly but his French diction was a joy, as was the elegant performance of the Capitole's orchestra under the stylish baton of Emanuel Villaume, a maître who really understands the subtle flavors of this music. He opted for a slightly cut version of the London Mignon of 1870, in which Thomas replaced the opéra-comique spoken dialogue with sung recitative (a sensible choice on Villaume's part, given the participation of Graham and the German Kaufmann) and recomposed the secondary ténor bouffe role of Frédéric (Wilhelm's boyish rival in love) for a Cherubino-like mezzo — a role sung here by the delectable young French singer Isabelle Cals.

 back top