Ambroise Thomas Mignon
Daniela Lehner & Rafael Vazquez
Mignon: as a child Nina Stevens/Philippa Stevens
Actors, villagers & dancers
Conductor: Clive Timms
Opera is a fragile flower, often blooming for decades and then suffering eclipse for generations before re-evaluation in our omnivorous times. Mignon received a thousand performances in Paris between 1866 and 1894! However, it became both neglected and despised (Chabrier once described "three kinds of music; good, bad, and Ambroise Thomas"). At the Guildhall School, a wise decision was taken not to use the later 'slow-moving and turgid' through-composed version (available on Accord CDs) for this triumphant revival, which vindicated GSMD's belief in its viability and capacity to move a modern audience so successfully that I returned to see the alternate cast on the third of the four performances.
It was a team endeavour, with all the elements meshing together under the overall direction of Stephen Medcalf, who was responsible at Guildhall for one of the most important productions of oratorio as opera, Handel's Susanna. The lakeside scene on the curtain, combined with superb lighting, creates some magical effects and the staging is altogether brilliantly satisfying. Played as a 'numbers' opera, with spoken dialogue in well-trained French, it is theatrical throughout, with clever touches in the students' fluent movement and spiceed with amusing shadow puppet devices to suggest travel between the scenes.
I preferred marginally the first cast (principals pictured) with the mellifluous baritone of John Llewelyn Evans as the deranged beggar Lothario (ultimately revealed as Mignon's father in a too-perfunctory coup, just before memories return and she dies). Neither Mignon was as small and waif-like as one's ideal for this character (more familiar nowadays through Schubert and Wolf's Mignon songs), but you can't have everything. Anna Stephany may be the stronger singer, but Daniela Lehner conveyed the fragility of the downtrodden victim and blind trust in her love-torn rescuer more subtly.
I had similar reactions to the two Wilhelm Meisters; Eyvi Eyjolfsson was a more conventional lead tenor, but far more interesting and memorable is the vertically challenged Rafael Vazquez, whose tiny stature increased the plausibility of his naive vulnerability to the untrustworthy charms of the coquette, Philine, egged on by Laerte, the excellent Benjamin Segal in all performances. Susanne Anderson negotiates her coloratura well, but uses a generalised fast vibrato not to my taste. Elizabeth Bailey sang and danced Philine with enormous confidence and flair, encompassing her theatrical character more completely.
The pervading cruelty of this tragi-comedy is underlined from the beginning by tiny touches, such as a chorus member flicking cigarette ash instead of money into Lothario's begging hat, before they all set upon him. Soon afterwards we watch the humiliation of Mignon forced to do her 'egg-dance'; Wilhelm's unawareness and Philine's heartlessness combine to drive the ultimate tragedy. (Guildhall rightly dispensed with the alternative, extended happy ending.)
Benjamin Segal & Elizabeth Bailey
Enjoyment of Mignon was greatly enhanced by GSMD's belated leap into the 21st Century. The synopsis in the programme was, as so often, hard to take in before curtain up. Fortunately, Guildhall School (purists when I first raised this issue there) has finally succumbed to the public's now firmly established expectation of surtitles for opera - at Covent Garden, even for those in English.
Sometimes it is better to be late introducing technology; the Guildhall's new system is the best I have encountered. The two screens to left and right are small and so is the print, allowing for substantial pieces of text to be taken in quickly without distracting attention from the stage. Timing was perfect and the information sharp and clear from all seats (maybe worth experimenting with fonts, such as MusicalPointer's Verdana, recommended for high online legibility?).
One final technological suggestion. Talking to a cellist who recognised me as having come to see the show twice, I enthused about the production, only to learn that the orchestra (which plays in a deep pit) had never seen what happens on stage! Surely they deserve, at the least, to see a video of the production - desirable for the record and for educational use, as discussed at the time of Guildhall's memorable Snowmaiden under the same, dare I say great, house director, Stephen Medcalf.
Peter Grahame Woolf