I know not all of my readers share my enthusiasm for opera but stay with me while I tell you about why I’m so interested in this thing about Mignon. I have tickets for a new production (by New Sussex Opera) of the little performed opera, Mignon (1866), by the relatively unknown French composer Ambroise Thomas (1811 – 1896). No reason to go on about it, you may think. New Sussex Opera is based in my (well known) home town of Lewes and specialises in productions of lesser known gems from the operatic repertoire so I’m excited to see what they make of it when I’m at the Eastbourne performance on November 22nd but that’s not the whole story.
The opera is a reworking of the tragic tale of little Mignon, the most sympathetic character in the great German writer, Goethe’s influential, Romantic and wildly popular novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, 1796). Goethe was a good bet as a primary source when 19th Century French opera was all the rage – the equivalent of 20th Century Hollywood movies which also raided literary classics for sensational effect. Thomas’ Mignon (1866) was preceded by Gounod’s greatest hit, Faust (1859) and followed by Massenet’s Werther (1887). Lovers of Goethe tend to sneer at these examples of operatic showbiz but that doesn’t mean that the rest of us can’t enjoy them for what they are. I, for one, have always had an unhealthy interest in the backwaters of 19th Century opera.
In the opera, Mignon is promoted to the main character. She is an innocent young woman, a wandering singer who was kidnapped by gypsies as a baby and only has distant memories of her origins in an ancient castle and now makes her melancholy way through life with her companion, an old man with a harp. We all love a melancholy maiden apparently and the opera made Mignon an international celebrity popularised by a series of best-selling postcard photographs – another phenomenon of the 1860s – and even finding a place on restaurant menus as a recipe for pinkish pork or beef, Filet Mignon.
My fascination with this period and with opera in particular stems from my schoolboy obsession born from multiple readings of an old book that is still in my possession even if, like me, it now really shows its age. The Complete Opera Book is an incomplete guide to opera by pioneering American music critic Gustav Kobbé. It is incomplete because Gustav Kobbé (1857 – 1918) died before completing his manuscript and the book was first published (posthumously) in the United States in 1919 (USA) and then an English edition in 1922.
I have had my precious copy of the 1925 reprint since I was but a lad of 13 and, although there have been a number of updated versions, known as Kobbé’s Opera Book (notably by the confidently opera-literate royal, the Earl of Harewood in 1954), I’ve always stuck with the original, wondering why anyone could think that they could add to something that had such inimitable charm. I prefer pure Kobbé even though my copy is much damaged and, sadly on one occasion, leaked on from above in a plumbing disaster. Kobbé’s final entry was for the Spanish composer Enrique Granados’ 1916 opera, Goyescas and I have always been happy to leave this lovely book there.
Gustav Kobbé (1857 – 1918)
It is a marvellous document of the period with wonderfully personal and often erudite opinions based on Gustav Kobbé’s memories, mostly at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, of opera productions with the legendary opera singers of the 1890s until the early 20th Century – illustrated with classic photographs of the main stars, Nellie Melba, Enrico Caruso, Jean and Edouard de Reszke, Pol Plançon and Emmy Destinn amongst others. These people were some of the earliest operatic ‘celebrities’ to fascinate me and led me to develop an interest in old opera recordings of the early 20th Century – a true Golden Age for singing.
It was also in this book where I first read about Ambroise Thomas’ Mignon where Kobbé tells us that even by the 1890s, this popular ‘hit’ had begun to fade writing that “it is a work of delicate texture; of charm rather than passion; with a story that is, perhaps, too ingenuous to appeal to sophisticated audiences of the modern opera house.” His opinion is sound, I think, but maybe today’s so-called sophisticated audiences might find more attraction in the work’s period charm than Kobbé did when he first saw the work on the 5th December, 1883.
In my early teens I had all the patience of an adolescent stamp collector so I pawed over these pages memorising cast lists and production dates and trying to imagine what these pieces would have sounded like. I knew what they looked like, of course, because of those old photographs and the others I struggled to find – including this moody photograph of the very first Mignon, the French mezzo-soprano Célestine Galli-Marié (1840-1905). Later, after Mignon’s 1866 debut, Mme Célestine Galli-Marié was also the first Carmen in Bizet’s famous opera of the same name (1875). An apparently infatuated Georges Bizet is reported to have found her perfect in the role so I am assuming she was pretty good as Mignon too as the opera became an instant hit.
My first encounter with any of the music from Mignon was when I heard a recording of the opera’s most famous aria, ‘Connais-tu le pays?‘ sung by the phenomenal American mezzo-soprano, Marilyn Horne who, with the Australian soprano Joan Sutherland, had introduced me to many of the so-called ‘forgotten’ operas of the 19th Century. Like so many of the other operas I had read about in Kobbé, Mignon seemed not just to contain beautiful music but it seemed perfectly stage-worthy too. Marilyn Horne performed the part in a 1970s production in Dallas, Texas and then went on to record the complete opera which I devoured with genuine curiosity mixed with enthusiasm. Well, most things that I heard Marilyn Horne sing were alright by me. It was also performed successfully by that other great American mezzo Federica von Stade in 1984. I missed those performances and missed it again later at the 1986 Wexford Festival.
I haven’t been able to see any of the other, admittedly infrequent productions of Mignon either even when it was staged in the UK at the Buxton Opera Festival in 2011.
So, now you know why, after all these years, I’m so interested to see the latest production by New Sussex Opera and I hope, at last to discover whether Gustav Kobbé was right about the opera as being perhaps “too ingenuous to appeal to sophisticated audiences of the modern opera house.” It won’t be too ingenuous for me, that’s for sure, so let’s hope it isn’t for the sophisticated Eastbourne and Lewes audiences either.
Oh yes, lest I forget, you might want to hear that famous aria from the opera, ‘Connais-tu le pays?’
as recorded by Marilyn Horne in 1968. Give it a go, you might like it: