Gounod - Mireille

ONP Garnier, Wednesday October 7 2009

Conductor: Marc Minkowski. Production: Nicolas Joel. Sets: Ezio Frigerio. Costumes: Franca Squarciapino. Mireille: Inva Mula. Vincent: Charles Castronovo. Ourrias: Franck Ferrari. Ramon: Alain Vernhes. Taven: Sylvie Brunet. Vincenette: Anne-Catherine Gillet. Orchestra and chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Nicolas Joel's production of Mireille left me with no wish ever to see or hear the work again, so what a thankless task it must be for a perfectly decent cast to slog through it ten times without any help from the producer, and with only resounding boos on the opening night and tepid applause since as their reward. By mid-series, the orchestra played and the singers sang as if they'd long since wished they'd never got involved. The work itself needed help too if it were to succeed (Mireille ends in a mawkish orgy of Catholic Kitsch; the score, meanwhile, had me wondering if I hadn't always underrated Arthur Sullivan), and didn't get it from a staging that seemed (in the context of the change of management at the ONP, from Mortier to Joel) to be almost aggressively outdated and provincial.

On the whole, the press have panned the production but praised the cast. So Inva Mula was disappointing on Wednesday night, and as she was sipping discreetly from a stage beaker at one point, she may not have been on peak form (or she may just have needed a stiff martini to face another evening's ordeal). Mireille is supposed to be hard to sing, and she made it sound so: you could hear the revving-up and the crunching of gears. The medium was very good indeed, but the top notes were either barely-audible pianissimi or, if loud, problematic. Her being done up with braided hair and in frumpish frocks didn't help: she could have been Vincent's dowdy mother. She was, however, noticeably stronger in the last part: perhaps the martinis had by then kicked in.

Charles Castronovo made a handsome, elegant Vincent, visually and vocally, though even at Garnier his voice is not loud (and come to think of it, nobody's voice really rang out in this performance; as I said, they all seemed to be fed up). In the absence of any direction, his acting was reduced to hands in pockets or clenched fists, but we know he can act if helped; we saw that in L'Elisir d'amore, where he radiated boyish charm. So it wasn't his fault.

Sylvie Brunet was far better cast here than as Carmen at the Châtelet. Hers was probably the most interesting sound of the evening, very bronzy, great diction and no hamming things up with Azucena-like chest notes. The rest of the cast would have been perfectly adequate in a production that made more of the piece, apart from the "Passeur" boatman, who was from the classic feeble-voiced, wobbly school of bit-part singers.

Minkowski pretended still to be enthusiastic, although he must have noticed how little applause he and the unruly orchestra got before the last round. The chorus, under its new chorus-master, who came from Toulouse in Joel's luggage, was unusually ragged and off-beat: an inauspicious start to a new era?

That's the fear you get from the whole unmemorable enterprise, as you can't help seeing it as a manifesto proclaiming radical change (for the worse, so you can only think at this stage) at the ONP. OK, this is only the opening show and Joel has promised not to abuse his position by staging his own productions, so things may turn out for the good; we have to wait and see. And a team like Ezio Frigerio and Franca Squarciapino are really not radical change at all, more a return to the distant past: Frigerio was already the set designer for Paris's near-legendary Strehler production of Le Nozze, which must have premiered in the 70s I guess. But as I think we all know, there's no way to bring back a golden age (supposing there really was one), and "taking the same and starting again," as the French call it, is no way to see in a new one.

Frigerio's sets were simple and, I use the word again, unmemorable: a field of wheat; the same field plus a waggon decorated with flowers; a long provençal farmouse behind a hillock; a plastic river in the moonlight; a stone wall; a flight of steps up to a cross on a column. The characters were all dressed (and the set was lit) for Millet's Angelus. The choreography of the farandole was absurdly amateurish. Taven brandishing her twisted stick as the curtains closed was Met-standard corny. The boatman scene by the river (I could hardly believe my eyes when dry-ice "smoke" appeared in twin streams from the sides) ended in ridicule as the boat sank too fast into the stage. Nobody moved to help the dying Mireille as she climbed the stone steps on her knees to embrace the column.

"Limoges 1930" said my elderly neighbour, who would know. She couldn't get over the farandole, imitating it in the foyer. I don't know why my friends decided to stay to the bitter end. I'd gladly have left earlier. A very dull start to a new season under new management, but as I just said, we have to wait and see. Die tote Stadt is next, so there may be light on the horizon...

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