Opera en cinq actes et sept tableaux. Running Time: 2 hours 25 minutes.
I first saw this opera when I was in Paris in September, 2009. My father fell asleep in the between the fourth and fifth acts. I stayed awake for the whole thing, although he did comment on how the Palais Garner brought in wheat from Provence for this production (the set of acts one and two is a giant wheat field). We also saw La Traviata in Venice the following October, my father fell asleep in the third act. Like basically anything by Gounod other than Faust, it is hard to take this as a masterpiece. A failure at its premiere, it found some success with a completely changed happy ending in a three act structure which debuted in 1889.
SETTING: Provence, 19th century. The main conflict concerns the well-to-do only child Mireille (soprano) who is in love with the poor basket weaver Vincent (tenor) who is almost murdered by the bull-tender Ourrias (baritone) whom her father Maitre Ramon (bass) would rather see her married off to, that is until he dies. The plot of the last two acts is too brief for me to relate here. Other characters include the good witch Taven (mezzo-soprano or contralto) who is my personal favourite.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: A wheat field, actually a mulberry grove, the evening of Midsummer. (27 minutes)
0: The overture **, probably the most complex Gounod ever wrote, opens with the somewhat famous Introduction to the tableau in the Crau which will return in that scene (Act IV Scene II). There is then a theme representing Vincent (country-side walk tune) followed by a farandole (a Provencal chain dance) in allegretto (this returns in the second act).
8, 13: Ecoutez les chanter et rire/Et moi, si, par hasard After an amusing chorus of female farmer workers (which frames the entire act) it is Taven who sings the first soloist lines *, although she is then scoffed at by the girls because she lives in a nearby cave (only Mireille is remotely kind to her). Mireille’s friend Clemence says she wants to marry a rich man, but Mireille’s desires are much more lowly, she simply wants to love the man she marries *, for which the girls make fun of her, but Taven defends her. After the girls leave Taven gets Mireille to admit that she and Vincent are in love, but she worries because of their class differences.
19, 25: Vincenette a votre age/Ecoute et souvien-toi! Vincent happens upon the scene and is stopped by Mireille for a love duet **, goes into backstory and Mireille asks him the rather inane question of what his sister’s name is and if she is charming and beautiful (it’s the unimaginative Vincenette, and yes apparently but not so much as Mireille herself because this is opera). Eventually he kisses her and she realizes that he definitely loves her, but the girls call for her from afar. Before leaving she has them make a vow that should any misfortune ever befall one or the other, that they would meet again at the Chapel of Stes. Maries-de-la-Mer *. The girls are heard in the distance to the same chorus as at the start of the act. Curtain.
ACT 2: In front of the Arles Amphitheatre, the same afternoon. (39 minutes)
0: La farandole joyeuse et folle The townspeople come on singing and dancing an energetic farandole **. Vincent arrives, as does Mireille, and the people ask them for some love songs because why not.
3: La brise est douce et parfumée Mireille goes first, although it turns into a duet with Vincent. This is the relatively famous Chanson de Magali **, at the very least the most well known number in the opera. Meanwhile, the races begin in the amphitheatre and the people go in dancing the farandole.
10: Voici la saison All except Mireille who encounters Taven who gives her some news: three men want to marry her ** and she tells her this to a bewitching little tune.
15: Trahir Vincent! Mireille can not even fathom not loving Vincent forever to a waltzing aria **.
22: Si les filles d’Arles sont reines Ourrias arrives and immediately impresses upon us that he is really bad in a furious, even demonic, couplet **.
28, 33, 37: Un pere parle a un pere/A vos pieds, helas, me voila!/Tonnerre et sang In the act finale **, Maitre Ramon and Maitre Ambroise (Vincent’s father) meet and Ramon is incredibly trite with him as the two lovers and Vincent’s sister Vincenette look on. Ambroise asks Ramon what to do with a son who loves a rich girl, he replies to beat him. Mireille reveals that she is the rich girl whom Vincent loves and that she loves him as well. She rather bravely (or perhaps brazenly?) declares her love and Ramon viciously announces that his daughter is dead. Although at first he seems willing to just let her go off and marry Vincent disowned he grabs her and demands she come with him. She begs him to reconsider **, but he remains stone hearted and there is real despair as they almost leave in different directions but Ramon insults Ambroise and curses his daughter. But Mireille is certain, the following day she will marry Vincent as the people return and there is an explosive grand act ending ensemble ***.
ACT 3: (25 minutes)
Scene 1: Le Val d’Enfer, in front of Taven’s cave.
0: Witchy preluding *.
2: Voice le val d’Enfer Ourrias plots with some men to kill Vincent *. Ourrias goes over what he wants to do to Vincent in one of the most undramatic recitatives in what should obviously be an aria but isn’t.
6: Au fond de ce ravin sombre Suddenly Vincent is heard in the distance and he is harassed by Ourrias * who eventually strikes the defenceless man with a club to the head (Vincent is unarmed). He cries out for Mireille and passes out from loss of blood. Taven comes out of her cave frightened by all the noises. She places a terrible curse upon Ourrias and saves Vincent. Gounod really makes a hash out of this one, which is a shame because I rather like Taven and this is the last one sees of her.
Scene 2: The banks of the Rhone.
14: Ah! Que’ai je fais? Ourrias runs on terrified *, not knowing what to do. Suddenly everything gets calm, a distant horn, the chorus echoes him in the distance. The tenor section announces that it is midnight. Instead of being even remotely terrifying we get a series of picturesque choruses, which is in itself a little frightening exactly because it really shouldn’t be so calm (almost as if Gounod’s macabre sense of humour is coming out or something although there is no indication he had one). Even when they start talking about death it remains so calm, so deathly calm and placid.
22: A moi passeur! Ourrias gets into a ghostly fairy boat which slowly sinks into the Rhone and he drowns *. The chorus goes on with its rather noxious picturesqueness. Seriously, WTF Gounod? Curtain.
ACT 4: (34 minutes)
Scene 1: The house of Maitre Ramon, at first night, then morning.
0: Amis, voici la moisson fete! Jolly seemingly Mozart inspired chorusing of harvesters *. After they are gone, Ramon reflects upon how his rejection of Mireille’s request to marry Vincent will mean that he will have no peace in his old age.
8, 10: Le jour se leve The Musette, a field day piece for clarinet *, very picturesque before going into the song of Andreloux the shepherd *.
12: Heureux petit berger Mireille’s rather lovely response **.
15: Ah! parle encore! Vincenette rushes on to tell Mireille that Vincent’s injury has been only slight and that Taven has brought him to recovery. It would be rather ordinary if not for a beautiful prayer by Mireille ** which turns into a prayer for the two women. Otherwise it both begins and ends in the most sedate way and the finish has no drama to it at all. As Mireille sets off for Saintes-Maries.
Scene 2: The Crau.
24: We begin where we started, with the placidly calm Crau theme which could be a walk in the Tuscan hills **.
26: En marche! En marche! Mireille comes on **, already exhausted. The sun beating down on her, she becomes delirious and starts to see the mirage of a city on a lake in the distance. It is good, but also sounds a bit both like Marguerite and the prelude to Sapho.
32: En Marche! En Marche! Panic sets in, she doesn’t think she is going to make it and collapses. The flute of a Shepherd is heard in the distance. But this rouses her to move on once more with an embolden resolve ***! A rousing finish.
ACT 5: Before the Chapel at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. (19 minutes)
0: Vous qui du haut des cieux A holy chorus * of pilgrims on their way into the chapel.
2: Mon coeur est plein d’un noir souci Vincent comes on and prays for Mireille’s safety **.
7: Ah! La voici! C’est elle! Mireille arrives at the chapel just in time to have twelve minutes before expiring **. Pilgrims are heard from within the chapel, organ music heard. Mireille thinks that they pray for her to marry Vincent. Apparently both Vincencette and Maitre Ramon have been able to traverse the journey from Arles to Saintes-Maries without crossing the Crau and thus aren’t remotely near dying.
14: Saint ivresse! The chorus comes out and there is a big climatic ensemble **. Mireille goes into her final delirium, Vincent begs to die with her. A soprano soloist is hear calling Mireille from somewhere.
18: Son ame a pris a dieu An apotheosis for Mireille *** closes the opera. Curtain.
Accusations of Wagnerianism, or of Gounod trying to combine Wagner with Mozart, have plagued this work from its first performance. I haven’t the slightest idea why anyone, or rather how anyone, could claim that anything in this opera (or anything that Gounod ever wrote) is Wagnerian, but such are the accusations. The Mozart influence I better understand, but it is very slight indeed. Although it is a weak work in places (as all Gounod including Faust ultimately is), it isn’t musically so, except in the third act (see below). The storyline is incredibly slight even if it does have a rural charm and within the five act structure it just doesn’t work, the narrative is simply stretched too thin. The third act, which contains the only real physical action in the entire opera apart from Mireille walking for eight hours through the only desert in France, was written by Gounod to be picturesque and not dramatically frightening. Gounod does succeed in making the music very picturesque with a fairytale dreamlike quality to it (although apparently he was going for the Wolf’s Glen scene in Weber’s Freischutz which I frankly don’t see), but this really isn’t the appropriate sentiment conveyed by what is going on on stage.
Mireille’s lethal trek in the “desert” is a little irritating for me as the Crau is really more of a rocky plain than a desert. The only way anyone could die from heat exhaustion while crossing would be if they were quickly running across it while the sun was at its highest on a completely cloudless day and they were already dehydrated. It is hardly the Sahara! It also makes no geographical sense for her to cross the Crau as it is to the east of Arles. If one wanted to go to Saintes-Maries-de-la-mer, which is located to the south of the Camargue (a salt water wetland to the WEST of Arles), would one not want to travel westward from Arles closer to Petite-Rhone rather than trek the desert heading in the opposite direction?
But how does it hold up musically? Well the second act is magnificently filled with great numbers from start to finish. The fourth and fifth are also very good with some of the material in the magnificent category. The first is rather slight but with some very good material (especially the overture and the love duet), really only the third act (the second shortest) is truly annoying. Although the opera has some great numbers (especially arias and act finales), I think the phrase “brims with melodies” is a trifle overblown. Gounod’s attempt at being picturesque rather than spooky or even menacing in the third act really doesn’t come off at all for me, and the effect just seems a bit cheap fail. The villain is also rendered pointless by such an early dispatch. What exactly was the point of the character of Ourrias? On the other hand, Mireille herself is incredibly well drawn (possibly Gounod’s finest characterization), Vincent is a great romantic tenor lead, and I’m rather fond of Taven as a character even if she disappears rather quickly. I rather wished there were more of her and maybe no Ourrias, maybe have Maitre Ramon order men on Vincent as the mechanism to get Mireille to make her trek? Oddly enough, with all its faults and near misses, this is probably Gounod’s best opera. B+ or A-.