Thomas, Ambroise


MignonAmbroise Thomas - Mignon

Grand Théâtre de Genève, 2012 | Frédéric Chaslin, Jean-Louis Benoît, Sophie Koch, Paolo Fanale, Diana Damrau, Nicolas Courjal, Carine Séchaye, Emilio Pons, Frédéric Goncalves, Laurent Delvert | Geneva, 16 May 2012

There seems to have been some initial confusion over whether Mignon was destined to be a grand opera or an opéra comique. The libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré was first offered to Meyerbeer, who refused it, then Gounod, before being taken on by Ambroise Thomas now in his 50s at the time of writing in 1866, as a commission for the Opéra Comique in Paris. Based on Goethe’s famous Bildungsroman, ‘The Apprentice Years of Wilhelm Meister’ (1795), there were however certain changes that required that altered the original intentions of the work, such as expanding the role of Philine for a lyric soprano and rewriting the ending from the tragic conclusion of the original. Whatever the intentions of the original librettists, Thomas found a perfect expression for the work in the lighter of the two opera styles, composing with pleasant melodies as well as with delicacy for the emotional content and Mignon was a great success, the greatest of his career thus far (two years before his next success in Hamlet), the work even surviving past the fire that destroyed the Salle Favart in 1887 to run beyond a 1000 performances in Paris.

Those qualities in Thomas’s writing, particularly in the characterisation assigned to each of the main roles, was certainly evident in the 2012 revival production of the opera at the Grand Théâtre de Genève, which benefitted moreover from the outstanding casting of the French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch in the title role of Mignon. A young innocent of indeterminate gender who has been brought up by gypsies, Mignon has been forced to perform what seems to be a rather humiliating egg dance for the public, finally refusing to continue any longer at a show in the courtyard of a country inn where Wilhelm Meister is present. Taking pity on her predicament and attracted to the ambiguous nature of this strange creature dressed in boyish clothes, Wilhelm buys her freedom from Jarno, the leader of the gypsies. To protect her from the attentions of a crazed troubadour, Lothario, mad from the loss of his daughter, Wilhelm allows Mignon to accompany him as his page.

Mignon

References to such figures, many derived from Goethe’s Mignon, are common in literature in figures such as Lolita as well as in the cinema - Gelsomina in Fellini’s La Strada, for example - but some such as Lulu have also travelled through to opera and continue to exercise the same strange fascination. In some respects, the Mignon figure, looking for a father-figure, a lover, a husband, contains a purity which can inspire the artist (who can forget the poetic raptures of Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita?), but the same figure can also reflect darker and more ambiguous impulses that are protective and dangerously possessive. It’s perfect material for musical and poetical expression, but while there is a great deal of such qualities in Thomas’s writing, his opera Mignon perhaps doesn’t always reflect both sides of the coin with equal success. It’s a lovely little opera to listen to, but perhaps a little old-fashioned and restricted in this respect by the conventions of the opéra comique style.

It could be enlivened certainly through inventive stage direction and perhaps an updating of the settings, but there was nothing like that in Jean-Louis Benoît’s production for Geneva. If the props however were reduced to a bare minimum on the stage, it was to leave all the more room for it to be filled with singers and chorus, all dressed in fine, period costumes. A little character was introduced with a humorous setting up of chairs which became a game of skittles every time someone made a rushed entrance to the stage through them, and there was a minor skit involving the flames that destroy Baron Rosemburg’s castle at the end of the second act, but little else of note to suggest a theme or concept being explored. Even so, with the fine costume designs and the actual stage direction - Diana Damrau in particular being a swirling, sparkling presence as Philine - the production looked well and was never less than effective for the purposes of a traditional, theatrical presentation.

It was left to the singers to bring whatever they could to the roles through the performances. Sophie Koch brought a fabulous air of wistful melancholy to the famous aria ‘Connais-tu le pays où fleurent l’oranger?/Le pays des fruits d’or et les roses vermeilles?’ (“Do you know the land where orange flowers bloom?/A land of golden fruit and crimson roses?”), which along with her boyish appearance, lent some interesting ambiguity to the androgynous character and how she is perceived by both Wilhelm and Lothario. There was a hint here of other depths that could be explored, but neither Thomas’s music not the direction seemed capable of drawing anything more out of this as the performance progressed. Koch however was fabulous in the role, singing a choice mezzo-soprano role wonderfully. Taking on a broad range of roles that stretch from this light lyrical opéra comique to heavier Wagner roles, there really doesn’t seem to be anything she isn’t capable of, and she sounds more and more impressive each time I hear her.

Mignon

It was a double luxury then to also have Diana Damrau as Philine in this production. She played a crucial part in the success of the production, and her role is also crucial to making the opera work so well. Her flowing coloratura in the soprano range certainly adds considerable colour to the range of voices as well as some well-needed sparkle to a story that lacks the depth that it might have acquired in a tragic grand opera style, but there’s much more to her character than that and the role serves a vital dramatic function. Philine, along with sidekick Laërte as the leaders of a bohemian troupe of actors, is the catalyst that brings Wilhelm Meister and Mignon together, but Philine also has other outgoing feminine qualities and her flirting introduces the necessary element of conflict that pushes the romantic element to the fore. Her extravagant character and the extravagant singing that goes along with it were well-served here by Diana Damrau. Her ‘Je suis Titania la blonde’ polonaise, given after a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the baron’s castle, was every bit as rivetting and magnetic as it ought to be.

The two exceptionally talented leading ladies were well supported by an excellent Paolo Fanale as Wilhelm Meister, by Nicholas Courjal’s beautifully lucid baritone Lothario, and by Emilio Pons as Laërte. All of them sang very well, but none were really able to make much more of the parts beyond the limitations of the original characterisation and within the constraints of the unexceptional stage direction. A good energetic and entertaining performance from Carine Séchaye in the trouser-role of Frédéric also added to the overall quality and dynamic of the singing. Frédéric Chaslin conducted the orchestra of the Suisse Romande delightfully through Thomas’s lovely score, the production using the original version of the opera with spoken dialogue (only a few short passages) rather than the later revised German version with recitative that, like Thomas’s similar rearrangement of Hamlet, attempted to come closer to the tragic ending for an audience more familiar with the original work. The happy ending however seemed very much in line with the lightness and delicacy of touch that characterised the whole production here in Geneva.

HamletAmbroise Thomas - Hamlet

Opéra National du Rhin | Patrick Fournillier, Vincent Boussard, Stéphane Degout, Ana Camelia Stefanescu, Marie-Ange Todorovitch, Nicolas Cavallier, Christophe Berry, Vincent Pavesi, Mark Van Arsdale, Jean-Gabriel Saint-Martin, Dimitri Pkhaladze | Strasbourg, France - 26 June 2011

To be or not to be… an opera… that is the question.

That’s a bit of a predictable way to start a review of Ambroise Thomas’ opera version of Hamlet, but it’s still a relevant question that has divided opera-goers for years. Your view on that is likely to depend on whether you are an English-speaker and familiar with the Shakespeare drama or otherwise, and if you are more attuned to the traditions of French grand opera. The problem with Shakespeare in French – even though his work is venerated there almost as much as in the UK – is that it’s not really Shakespeare. In French it has none of the poetry of his Elizabethan period verse, and it translated into a rather prosaic, ordinary, commonplace (I know these all mean the same thing, I’m just listing them for effect) French that is almost indistinguishable from how modern French is spoken.

Adapting Shakespeare to opera is not without its problems either, but there are plenty of examples from Berlioz to Wagner, but most notably Rossini and Verdi, to indicate that there’s no reason why a lyrical presentation of the Bard’s dramas can’t work, and in some cases… dare I say it… even improve on the original. Well, maybe not improve, but there are certainly examples, such as Iago’s Credo in Verdi’s Otello, where the original elements are expanded upon to superb effect, but it’s hard to see how even the Gesamtkunstwerk nature of opera can add much that isn’t already contained within the original Shakespearean drama.

Particularly Hamlet, which in my view, and many others, is the greatest drama ever written. I may have been biased from the outset then, but, never having had the opportunity before to see Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet – or indeed anything by one of France’s most respected if little-known composers – I was keen to take the opportunity to see it performed on French soil in Strasbourg. Ambroise Thomas’ works are rarely performed, with only Hamlet and Mignon staged with any kind of regularity in France, but even here at the Opéra National du Rhin, Hamlet was billed as a rare classic rediscovered. Try as I might however, I couldn’t get the original text out of my head as the rather drab, colourless, dull (yes, for effect) and prosaic French libretto singularly failed to bring the drama and the poetry to life.

Hamlet

Act I and II set out the dramatic content of the opera. It opens with the marriage of Gertrude to Claudius (a invented scene not in the original, but effective enough to establish the context of the drama) two months after his brother King Hamlet’s death, and is then followed by the appearance of the ghost of the father talking to his son Prince Hamlet, telling him that he was poisoned by Claudius and that he must be avenged (“but go easy on Gertrude”, he bizarrely warns), and Act II ends with the travelling players re-enacting the crime (strangely and confusingly in this production, implicating the real people into the drama and not leaving much room for ambiguity).

Musically, it’s hard to find anything attractive about the early scenes, the score conventional and dull, full of old-fashioned academicism that has little relation to the dramatic tone or context of the piece, with one-note continuo during speaking sections and only the chorus coming in from time to time to add dramatic emphasis. Any attempts at originality are quite eccentric, such as a solo saxophone at one point. The staging at Strasbourg Opéra didn’t really find any interesting way to make this come to life (the appearance of the King’s ghost walking vertically down a wall notwithstanding), with a generic Court setting that never changed, with variation only in the lighting – but it did at least keep the dramatic action fluid.

Act III and IV however, post interval, present a totally different side to the opera, putting aside the exposition of the dramatic plot and allowing the emotional tone to find its own footing through some lovely duets and arias – in Hamlet’s confrontation with the Queen, and particularly in Ophelia’s extended lament and death scene. It becomes more like scenes from Hamlet (or inspired by Hamlet) set to music, and it certainly kills the plot progression stone dead, but the musical qualities work in favour of the opera and this is certainly preferable to the dreary dramatisation of the first half. As wonderful as this might be, it comes at the cost of the excision of some important and famous scenes, with several of the characters given short shrift. Laertes has a walk-on/walk-off part (pointlessly wandering through the dramatic scene between Hamlet and Ophelia with a suitcase at one point in this production), there are no Rosencrantz or Guildenstern (not a loss really), and alas, poor Yorick’s name is forgotten by the gravediggers, giving Hamlet no opportunity to pose with a skull and meditate upon life (although he does so here, and quite effectively, in relation to Ophelia’s death). Even Polonius is reduced to a bit-part of about three lines, playing no significant part in the drama, and consequently coming out of the drama alive!

Hamlet

As do many other characters, for Thomas and his librettists Michel Carré and Jules Barbier (taken admittedly from a reworking of the drama by Alexandre Dumas) – suddenly realise that they need to find a way to quickly wrap-up this non-drama. Shakespeare is thrown out the window and instead they tack on their own ending where the ghost of the dead King appears before the assembled guests, hands a knife to Hamlet and tells him to get on with it (“but don’t forget, go easy on your mother”). Hamlet duly obliges, despatching Claudius before himself expiring over the grave of Ophelia. To say I was bemused at the finale would be an understatement – flabberghasted, perhaps – and this is the revised version of the opera that was forced upon Thomas for the English permiere of the opera, as it was felt that the English audience wouldn’t accept the happy ending in the original version where Hamlet lives on and is crowned King! Putting Shakespeare aside however – and the developments of Act III and IV are such a thoroughly enjoyable musical experience that one is finally able to do this – it was a however a dramatically effective conclusion.

It helped that the singing at Strasbourg was of a fairly high standard. Hamlet is a baritone role, which one feels it should be even though it’s not a great operatic role (he’s even upstaged by Ophelia), but we had Stéphane Degout here (who I’ve previously seen doing Rameau) and he was in fine voice, as was Nicolas Cavallier in the bass role of Claudius. Hamlet of course notes that women are fickle and inconstant, and there was some inconsistency to the Romanian Ana Camelia Stefanescu as Ophelia, and Marie-Ange Todorovitch’s Gertrude, but they were mainly hampered by the dramatic expression of the first two acts and both came through to excellent effect in the final two acts, particularly in Ophelia’s beautifully heartfelt lament. Despite the liberties taken with Shakespeare’s verse and characterisation then, and despite some conservative grand opera tedium in the drama of the first half, and with the help of some judicious pruning by Patrick Fournillier of the opera’s ballet sequences, Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet proved to be such an experience that one can see why the opera remains popular in France, as well as why it’s not so highly thought of elsewhere.