Mignon Anna Stéphany
Wilhelm Evyi Eyjólfsson
Philine Susanna Andersson
Lothario John Llewelyn Evans
Laërte Benjamin Segal
Jarno Javier Borda
Zafari Tanya Mandzy
Frédéric Henri de Vasselot
Antonio Loïc Gugen
Clive Timms Conductor
Members of London Contemporary Dance School
Stephen Medcalf director
Sarah Fine choreography
Mignon Daniela Lehner
Wilhelm Rafael Vázquez
Philine Elizabeth Bailey
Lothario David-Alexandre Borloz]
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 8 November, 2004
Venue: Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London
Another service to opera provided by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and its annual programme of staged opera, in the care of head of opera studies Clive Timms and resident producer Stephen Medcalf of the Guildhall’s Opera Course, Mignon comes to London in virtually its original opéra-comique form, eschewing the happy-ending tinkering and orchestral recitatives that Ambroise Thomas (1811-96) made for its showing in London soon after its 1866 Paris première.
Colourful and with some pleasing music, expertly scored with wind and harp prominent (the Guildhall Theatre acoustic making the harp sound particularly vivid), the story of lost daughter finding her strangely-recovered father while feeling jealousy for another girl over her rescuer, is more Gilbert & Sullivan than high opera, especially so with the spoken dialogue, but it’s hard to see why in this version Mignon has fallen foul of opera houses for so long. There’s a great coloratura part in Philine, thrilling taken at this performances by Susanna Andersson, and a tenor lead role of some substance, pleasingly taken by Icelander Evyi Eyjólfsson. Anna Stéphany in the title role managed the thankless task of breathing life into the least colourful character – the young outcast gypsy who, at Wilhelm’s largesse, is freed from her itinerant life (I’m not sure why all the gypsies where in black and white commedia-dell’arte-like costumes) to become Wilhelm’s servant. Jealous of Wilhelm’s infatuation with Philine she wishes retribution on her rival, and the mad old man, Lothario, takes her wish to heart and sets fire to the theatre where Philine is Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.
Of course it is Mignon that gets caught in the conflagration, but (phew!) Wilhelm rescues her, and buys a house in Venice for her to recover. As chance would have it when Lothario follows them he strangely remembers the house, and realises he once owned it, and that Mignon is his daughter, Sperata, lost as a child. Philine is reconciled with Laërte leaving Wilhelm free for Mignon; although in a none-too-clear ending, following the reconciliation, it seems that this Mignon opts for her ill-timed demise (i.e. tragedy) as she stands in prayer at the back of the stage.
Full marks for resurrecting the work, and going back to the original version. Like “Carmen” and, indeed, Thomas’s own Hamlet (also possible to stage with a happy ending), the spoken dialogue is perfectly acceptable, especially as the orchestral recitatives would mean a lengthening of an already lengthy evening (2 hours 50 minutes, inclusive of one interval).
Although Act Two – at the Baron’s house where Philine & Laërte prepare their Shakespeare performance – worked very well, with the ever-smaller proscenium arches common to the design leading naturally to a stage at the back for the performance – I was a little disappointed that the production as a whole lacked the artistry of previous Guildhall productions. I remember the simple quality of Medcalf’s Martinů and Berlioz double-bill which should have toured the country; but I’m not sure I could recommend an extended run to the rather cramped first act which was straight out of G & S or “White Horse Inn”.
But that should not divert from the main point – the Guildhall continues its innovative and stylish reinvigoration of the repertoire. It is not only an important showcase for the thriving opera course there, but also a regular reminder to the professional companies that there are interesting operas worth dusting down. It was good to see a very healthy showing of staff from various companies on this opening night.
Of the three remaining performances, two are with an alternative cast. Tickets from the Barbican unless 45 minutes before the performance.
A French theme continues the GSMD programme with a double-bill of Ravel’s “L’heure espagnole” and Poulenc’s “Les mamelles de Tirésias”, 24, 26, 28 February and 2 March. Definitely dates for the diary.