Ambroise Thomas: Mignon (1866)

Opera ou Opera Comique en trois actes et quatre (ou cinq?) tableaux. Running Time: 3 hours 1 minute (plus 14 minutes of supplemental material)

Ah, my annual birthday review!  I actually wrote act one up in August 2020, put it aside for over a year, and finished up everything else in October 2021.

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I have a confession to make: I had a trilingual paternal nonna (English, Italian, French), and this was her favorite opera. Her 100th birthday would have been nine days from posting. In fact, Mignon was the first operatic story apart from Hansel und Gretel and Amahl and the Night Visitors that I was familiarizes with as an eight or nine year old, so I guess this was my first adult opera. I had meant to get this one out since 2017.

SETTING: Germany and Italy, 1790s. Mignon (mezzo-soprano) is apparently an amnesiac Romani girl who is rescued from master Jarno (bass) by sexy student Wilhelm Meister (tenor) and a wandering minstrel named Lothario (bass). Her rival for the former is sex-pot actress Philine (coloratura soprano) who has admirers of her own in the Baron Frederic (contralto) and the actor Laertes (tenor). The opera climaxes with an off-stage performance of A Midsummer Nights Dream, a fire, and a bouquet of flowers.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: A German Inn. (75 minutes)

0: The overture *** is a prime example of French musical whimsy and covers the various themes from the score: the sad song of Lothario (harp), the longing of Mignon for Wilhelm Meister, Philine suising Tatiana. While grand, it is also playful, similarly to the work of Adam, Auber, or Hèrold. In the final minute the orchestra goes bizzurk.

9, 18, 23: Fugitif et tremblant/Non, non, non After a brief but very tuneful Teutonic male drinking chorus, Lothario sings his sad song **. The drinking chorus returns for another bout, followed by the arrival of the Romani entertainers led by Jarno and including the unwilling Mignon. Philine shows up asking Laerte what is going on: more atmospheric gypsy music/dancing ensues as Philine embarks on a vocal waltz with her coloratura **. Jarno attacks Mignon for non-compliance and is about to beat her with a stick when Wilhelm Meister and Lothario stop him, this occurs to a very complex orchestral accompaniment and a solidly good climatic tune from the chorus **. Mignon divides a bouquet of flowers between the two men as a sign of thanks (and love).

25: Quel est, je veux le savoir A wonderful quintet con coro *** as the main characters size each other up.

31: Oui, je veux par le monde An aria for Wilhelm Meister **.

37: Eh! Quoi mon cher Laerte A brilliant trio between Wilhelm, Laerte, and Philine ***. It has one sturdy tune, mostly in what Philine is singing.

46: Connais-tu le pays A great scene for Mignon ***: two basic sections, the first is essentially the slow longing Mignon tune from the overture over the vocal line, the second is a bit of bird-like harmonization. She goes over a lot of details with Wilhelm about how she was abducted by Romani as a child and how he might purchase her freedom. He decides to do so from Jarno.

54: Legeres hirondelles Mignon duets with Lothario **, he attempts to convince her to leave with him, she ultimately declines, kindly however, as she can tell they have some sort of relationship, although what she can not recall.

63: Viens, la libre vie est douce! What at first seems like a hightened bit of recitative for Wilhelm and Mignon turns into a trio with Lothario **. It is followed by general chorusing as the actors return.

68: Qui m′aime me suive Philine embarks on a mild if amusing air ** as she enchants Wilhelm into giving her the bouquet which Mignon gave to him earlier (to the horror of the latter). It is impossible not to feel for the poor thing at this terrible betrayal. A brilliant choral finish, Philine in top form, of course.

ACT 2: (65 minutes)

Scene 1: A room in the castle of the Baron made into a dressing room for Philine.

0, 4: Belle, avez-pitie The entr’acte * is a good orchestral piece with little trace of the drama about to unfold in the act (it is mostly pseudo-18th century minuet atmospheric music). Philine takes pleasure in the luxury of the room as she entertains the baron before the performance, who sings a mini-aria about how excited he is that he is in her boudoir. Laerte is heard outside singing about Philine *. Wilhelm and Mignon (who is now the servant of Philine) come in.

7: Plus de soucis, Mignon Wilhelm playfully accuses Mignon of jealousy *.

10: Ah, je crois entendre Mignon pretends to be asleep while Wilhelm and Philine embark  on flaky amorous conversation ***. Philine eventually switches into waltz time, with Wilhelm quickly following her train like a panting musical lap dog (a role only a tenor can satisfy).

17: Je connais un pauvre enfant The two leave Mignon, who gets up and decides to try on costumes and make up thinking it will make Wilhelm take notice of her. Thomas succeeds in not making this look pathetic, and instead it actually serves to strengthen the individuality of Mignon **. This includes direct quotations that would eventually be used (perhaps more effectively) for the Ophelian Mad Scene in Hamlet. If you have been listening closely, traces of this occur as far back as the start of act one. Just notice the eventual self-borrowing here.

23: C’est moi, j’ai tout brisé Frederic sings a happy little ballad how happy he is based on the entr’acte **. This sets up the scene for a physical altercation between Frederic and Wilhelm who end up fighting over Philine.

30: Adieu, Mignon Wilhelm decides that he can not be around Mignon anymore in a rather beauty aria ***. They embark in an interesting passage of parlando in which it is apparent that Mignon is having a mental breakdown over being rejected by Wilhelm. She runs out just as Philine returns and the scene ends on a curtain call and Frederic realizing that he hates Philine.

Scene 2: The Park outside the Castle.

40, 42: Elle est là, près de lui The interlude **, starts off furious, dies down, becomes more gentle with some earlier themes popping in as the scenery is changed. Immediately following we come upon Mignon complaining about how Philine has won Wilhelm so easily. The prompts a rather good solo number ** from her (the orchestration also helps a lot).  Suddenly she hears a harp, who could this be?

50: As-tu souffert Mignon and Lothario embark on a duet of mutual understanding which rapidly turns to plans of arson. It is nevertheless rather lovely **. They go; Lothario fixating on fire. The chorus of theatre goers praises Philine for her performance as Titania (which is not a large role so I am not sure why they are so into it).

56: Je suis Titania! And now, the number which everyone who is reading this review has been awaiting, the ultimate display of coloratura soprano decadence ** by the Queen of the Faeries herself. It has the most minimal accompaniment, mostly in order to allow for the high voice to enunciate all of the rather wordiness of the livret.

61: Ah! vous voilà! A lot happens all at once in the act finale *** (all of four minutes, but ultimately the climactic scene of the entire opera). The four principals all encounter each other: Philine asks Mignon to retrieve a bouquet of flowers she left in the theatre. She runs inside just as Lothario comes back having set fire to the castle, which is now visibly ablaze. Wilhelm runs in to rescue Mignon and for a moment it is not certain that either of them will make it out alive. Wilhelm returns, carrying a fainted Mignon in his arms, holding the bouquet as the curtain crashes down.

ACT 3: A room in a castle in Italy (41 minutes)

1: Ah! Au soufflé léger du vent The scenic barcarolle opens the act and tells us that there is a geographical change **.

4: De son cœur Lothario prays by the bedside of the ill Mignon **.  Wilhelm goes into some details about purchasing the castle, saying that the former owners disappeared about fifteen years earlier (this triggers memories for Lothario).

13: Elle ne croyais pas Wilhelm prays for the recovery of Mignon ***. This is one of the more beautiful moments in the act, much less the entire score. A gorgeous tenor aria full of poignancy and warmth as he realizes not only his love for her but his need to love her. She awakens.

19: Je suis heureuse Mignon confesses her happiness being in the castle (her memory is also being triggered). Wilhelm reveals his love for her ***.

24: Je suis Titania la blonde Philine returns like the demonic force that she is to tempt Wilhelm with her fioratura away from Mignon. Mignon immediately realizes that war tactics are in order to combat the Satpranic (or Sotranic?, give me a break I am trying to combine Soprano and Satanic!) forces at work ***. This oddly reveals a new level of musical psychology to the work: that coloratura sopranos are actually a hellish force sent to tempt lyric tenors away from wholesome mezzos. But Wilhelm remains true to Mignon.

29: Mignon! Wilhelm! Salut à vous! With just twelve minutes left, we need to wrap everything up **. Lothario returns dressed as a lord, for his is the rightful owner of the castle!

34: O vierge Marie Mignon finds a prayerbook and starts to pray to the Virgin Mary ***. She eventually realizes that she is actually Sperata, the daughter of the owner of the castle who disappeared fifteen years earlier. They embark on a bit of pro-Italy happiness before Mignon passes out from all of the surprises.

38: Elle revit! But she quickly revives: Wilhelm tells her that he loves her, and the trio rejoice to curtain ***.

APPENDIX:

The ten minute long alternate ending in which the entire cast (save Jarno) come on for a rather clever dance number. It is dominated by the orchestra and Philine (who else?) embarking on a reworking of the whirlwind from the end of the overture. It is only remotely similar to 19th century Italian block party music, but I get it at least. The orchestra quiets things down for a bit before we get a bit more serious and the other characters all reconcile with Mignon, particularly Philine, who embarks on yet another ballade before the final curtain. It is fine and musically fun, but I can also see why, especially for dramatic purposes, a company house ending would be a bit too much. The shorter trio is more dramatically effective.

COMMENTS:

It is hard to like Mignon (here me out). The score is beautiful, but equally it possesses long bouts of plot forwarding recitative which can become taxing (and make the entire work appear even more stagey than the typical opera, comique or otherwise). It also does not help that I chose to review the most complete recording of the opera in existence, notorious for including the rather drama-killing recitatives and being over three hours long when I could have chosen something around two and a quarter to two and a half hours. Nevertheless, I have subjected myself to the 1978 de Almeida release, and it is, ultimately, the best and most complete recording of the opera in existence. Even if the recording I own is closer to two and a quarter hours. I say it is hard to like Mignon because you will either love it for its beautiful and at times mesmerizing score or hate it for how lumbering and dramatically plodding and coy it can be. And in spite of its numerous stagey flaws, which I readily admit, the score wins me over every time!

It is equally difficult to figure out just who is the main character: Wilhelm Meister? Mignon? Philine? Lothario? Musically, it would appear to probably be Wilhelm Meister although Mignon herself is probably the only character who is completely drawn in the score. Philine, for all of her coloratura fire-works, is ultimately an extended cameo part in disguise as a leading role. The source material is Goethe: Young Wilhelm Meister to be exact, but there is little philosophy in Mignon except perhaps having a stage actress tempt the leading male character away for a time from his true love and lots of things about memory and how it might be restored. The third act is musically lovely (Thomas successfully pulls off a dreamy musical pallet in order to invoke the new Italian setting) but dramatically inert. Next to nothing actually happens other than a happy resolution to all of the personal problems of the four main characters plaguing the first two acts (the mental health of Lothario and Mignon, the death of the relationship between Wilhelm and Philine, the survival of his relationship with Mignon, the recognition of the paternal relationship between Lothario and Mignon and the restoration of their property). The big theatrical climax is the act two finale, but it has almost no build up even if it is pulled off well, coming on the heels of Philine giving us a five minute vocal gymnastics routine. The first scene of act two drags even though it, like every other scene, has multiple musical highlights. There isn’t a weak number in the entire score, which is RARE in any opera, even the greatest ones. That the comparatively second-tier Thomas could pull this off is close to a musical miracle in itself.

Generally, the opera is cut in performance, and unlike a lot of other instances of this happening when I would call it out for harming the dramatic structure or musical quality of the work, I will actually defend it here. This opera, if given in full, is actually around a hour too long. The first two acts are well over an hour each and do not have enough plot elements to sustain such Wagnerian loungeurs. Thomas does provide an excellent score, better than he would later with Hamlet, but it is tied down to a very thin plot. Or at least, one where little enough happens on stage, as psychologically rather a lot is occurring beneath the surface, and that fact, in opera, is also a plus.

A flawed alpha, but an alpha nonetheless.

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