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Mignon in Sussex

12 Nov

I’ve had a strong affection for Ambroise Thomas’s Mignon ever since I saw a marvellous production of it at Wexford in 1986, staged by Richard Jones, at the beginning of his career, it had flair, elegance and made you wonder why it had dropped out of the repertory.  I’ve seen a student performance at the Guildhall since, play the Antonio de Almeida recording now again and was very much looking forward to the performance by New Sussex Opera at Lewes Town Hall on 11th November.

I still think that it’s a lovely opera.  The first act may be a bit sprawling – a lot of characters, action and back-story to get through – but the second act strikes me as standing up pretty well to anything else written in France (or in most other places) in the 19th Century, while the third act rounds things off nicely, if a bit suddenly.  There are plenty of lovely musical numbers: not just “Connais-tu la pays” and that marvellous coloratura show-stopper, “Je suis Titania” but a gorgeous tenor aria for Meister in Act III, fine duets for Mignon with Meister and Lothario and a lovely aria for her in Act II.  Add to this some jolly choruses, amusing minor characters and a really exciting finale to the second Act, it’s easy to see why it hit a thousand performances in Paris and it’s equally easy to see how a certain musical snobbery took it out of the repertory.  It ain’t Puccini or Verdi and doesn’t have Mozart’s sheer genius but it’s a gentle, charming, rather moving piece that would work in much the same way that pieces like Adriana Lecouvreur or Fedora or some of those other pieces that we’ve been lumbered with recently do.

So I’m still wondering why I felt slightly disappointed after the New Sussex Opera performances.  I think it was probably mostly to do with the conditions in which NSO work – a shoestring budget, probably limited rehearsal time and, frankly, an unsympathetic venue.

For all that it’s lovely to be able to walk to the opera and I love having it on my doorstep, there are real problems with Lewes Town Hall as a venue.  The acoustic feels very orchestra-heavy, the seats are uncomfortable (Mignon has more than two and half hours of music in it), there’s no rake, so you’re at the mercy of chance as to who sits in front of you and how well you can see – and the stage itself is too low so you can’t really get a full picture of what’s going on – you feel a bit jostled visually.  And the fact that there was no backdrop made you even more aware of the venue.  It’s a noisy place with singers and stage hands distracting you with their clunking as they exit and enter.  I suspect that audiences in Eastbourne and at the Cadogan Hall won’t have the same problems but I wonder if it wouldn’t be worth experimenting, a la Opera North with having the orchestra behind the singers.

Harry Fehr had set the piece in the Berlin of the Weimar Republic.  In an opera which is really about character, the setting doesn’t matter much (though I did wonder whether Mignon’s position in the troupe of players would have been quite so difficult then as it might have been two hundred years before).  This allowed for some superb and very good looking costumes.  Eleanor Wdowki’s set was largely made up of travelling cases and tables.  The former aren’t a bad design motif for this opera which is about journeys.  I think it’ll look a whole lot better in more sympathetic venues.  Fehr moved the chorus reasonably effectively in not quite enough space for them and made the story clear..  Direction of the principals was, again, clear but I wonder if there was enough time to explore character in the way that he might elsewhere. The piece was done in its original Opera Comique version with dialogue and happy ending.  A good idea to do it in Hugh MacDonald’s translation and this side was pretty well done.

Musically, this was very decent.  It helps having the St Paul’s Sinfonia playing and providing clear, reliable support.  I felt, however, that Nicholas Jenkins’s conducting was a bit tentative, rather cautious – “connais-tu la pays” felt as if it went on rather longer than it should and the Act II finale didn’t quite have the impact that it should.  I couldn’t help feeling that just a couple more rehearsals might have led to a more comfortable performance.  The chorus sounded a lot better than it did the last time I heard it, though diction was misty – it wasn’t that easy to make out the words.

The principals were pretty good.  I was hugely impressed by Ruth Jenkins-Robertsson as Philine.  .”Je suis Titania” appeared to hold no terrors for her and she provided just the right frivolous glamour – even if I didn’t particularly believe her reconciliation at the end. I’d like to see more of her.  Victoria Simmonds doesn’t have the same eye-catching quality and I felt that she was a bit stumped by Mignon’s character (understandably, it’s quite easy to make her seem sulky and petulant most of the time) – you couldn’t quite see why Meister might be interested in her.  She sang her arias and the duets very well indeed – clear diction and vocally sounding just right.

Ted Schmitz doesn’t strike me as having the most grateful tenor voice to listen to but he sang his Act III aria pretty stylishly and, again, needed a bit more work to get the tension between his feelings for Mignon and those for Philine expressed more clearly.  Adrian Powter was vocally very reliable as Lothario, the half-mad father looking for his daughter.  I rather liked Fehr’s portrayal of him with a case, rather like a stateless refugee but it’s not an easy role and I think there’s a bit more madness and danger that could have been conveyed there.

Christopher Diffey made an elegant, amusing Laertes who managed the dialogue very well and injected some life into the proceedings whenever he was onstage.  Jason Crook as the ghastly circus owner, Jarno, was very good too.  The rest seemed rather more tentative.

How fair am I being?  I would guess that my chances of seeing a professional staging of this piece in the next ten years, if not my lifetime, in the UK are pretty much non-existent. I should be grateful to NSO for putting it on and I am.  You can’t expect the sort of standards that you would find at the Royal Opera House or a couple of miles down the road to the east of Lewes.  I’ve no doubt that this will come over very much more strongly at the later performances in Eastbourne and London, partly because of the real problems in putting anything on at the Lewes Town Hall.  Nevertheless, I still felt that there was a tentativeness and caution about this performance, for all its strengths, that didn’t quite put the piece across in its best light.  Perhaps because so many of the ingredients were so good, I wanted it to come across more strongly.  I wanted to come out feeling that the audience feeling enthusiastic for the work.  I’m not sure that they would have done so. I do hope it relaxes at later shows.