Thomas - Mignon

Opéra Comique, Paris, Wednesday April 14 2010.

Conductor: François-Xavier Roth. Production: Jean-Louis Benoit. Sets: Laurent Peduzzi. Costumes: Thibaut Welchlin. Lighting: Dominique Bruguière. Choreography: Lionel Hoche. Mignon: Marie Lenormand. Wilhelm Meister: Ismael Jordi. Philine: Malia Bendi-Merad. Lothario, Nicolas Cavallier. Frédéric: Blandine Staskiewicz. Laërte: Christophe Mortagne. Jarno: Frédéric Goncalves. Un serveur: Laurent Delvert. Danseuses, Marie-Laure Caradec, Vinciane Gombrowicz, Aurélie Genoud, Caroline Savi. Accentus. Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France.

Since the Théâtre du Châtelet switched from a full season of opera, rivalling the Opéra National (in the 90s especially), to more eclectic programming, we’ve fortunately been able to turn to the Opéra Comique instead. Change of management (and status: it is now a Théâtre National) there has brought a policy of scheduling new or recent works while reviving French pieces that have become rare. And so we’ve had the chance to see on stage works such as L’Etoile, Cadmus et Hermione, Zampa, Dusapin’s Roméo et Juliette, Eötvös’s Lady Sarashina, Le Roi Malgré Lui and, now, Thomas’s Mignon, a work which, in its day and after a shaky start, became a hit:

“Napoléon III assista à la 22e représentation et, enthousiasmé, fit donner 15 représentations l'année suivante pour les souverains européens réunis à Paris pour l'Exposition universelle de 1867. Dès 1868, l'opéra fut représenté à Weimar et à Vienne où il devint rapidement populaire. En 1870, Mignon fut donné à Londres en italien avec un très grand succès. En 1894, Mignon fêta sa 1000e représentation à l'Opéra-Comique, devenant le premier ouvrage lyrique à avoir été joué mille fois du vivant du compositeur.” (Wikipedia).

The new production at the Opéra Comique (today's house emerged from the smoking ruins of a building which burnt down, killing 84 people, during a performance of this very piece) has been universally praised by the critics. For an English-language sample, I turn to the ever-excellent Financial Times:

“Jean-Louis Benoit’s excellent staging so cleverly blends farce and emotion that this is the theatre’s most comprehensively successful production since new management came in in 2007. He rolls out an impeccably timed show and his young cast showcases tuneful singing and superb diction to get to the elusive kernel of the opéra-comique style.”

So I feel sheepish to admit that, though there was nothing wrong with the singers at all, we left at the interval.

In my experience, you have to be a truly sophisticated listener (or deliberately fogeyish, a different matter) to find real interest and get real pleasure out of second- or third-rank composers. Thomas’s music is well-made but doesn’t have the fluency of Massenet. And the plot of Mignon seemed to me (and the person with me) impossibly uninteresting, so I guess we just aren’t open to “the joyous pantomime spirit that goes with the genre,” according to a friend who found it “wonderful.”

Plus, although the critics insist on the quality of the production and even of the acting, my own impression was that, in addition to being visually dull (bare boards to the front with plain wooden chairs; to the rear, a theatrical curtain opening on painted landscapes; great coats and tricornes and rococo dresses), it was possibly the worst-acted show I’d ever seen on a Paris stage. It looked to me very much like amateur theatricals, with the tenor, for example, in an ill-fitting wig making him, though actually a very handsome lad, look like a moron, loitering all over the stage with one arm down his side and one hand held “18th-century-style" in front of him, occasionally stroking his chin pensively to show he was listening… I’m told, inevitably, that the second part, fire and all, was much better.

Oh well…

The voices were small but beyond reproach. Marie Lenormand, peering out from under another awful, mop-like wig and three-cornered hat, was a very fine mezzo along Susan Graham lines, not overdoing her big Act 1 number. Ismail Jordi (our Chanteur de México under the Châtelet’s now-eclectic policy) has a very clear, tenorino type voice with all the notes but perhaps more timbre than body. Malia Bendi-Merad, though we were no longer around to hear “Je suis Titania,” also had all the notes required at least for Act 1, but hers is an old-fashioned, Mady Mesplé type voice of a kind I’m not too keen on. And so on: a strong, team cast with no weak links and excellent playing from the Philharmonique under Roth.

We didn’t, as I explained to the aforementioned friend – the one who found it "wonderful," so much so, he said, that he literally wept with joy; he’s one of many people who would like to see a determined revival of this whole neglected genre of French romantic opera – storm out in a huff. We found the cast “sympathique” and would have stayed for another production. And we will continue, with enthusiasm and pleasure, to subscribe to the Salle Favart and look forward to discoveries every season. But we knew we wouldn’t get any more joy out of part two than part one, and left.

Maestro Wen Arto sings "Je suis Titania".


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