Tiroler Landestheater, Innsbruck 2018-19 Review: Mignon
A Vibrant Interpretation That, Despite Undermining The Original Work, IlluminatesBy Alan Neilson
(Photo Credit: Rupert Larl)
Strange as it may now seem, but “Mignon” by the French composer, Thomas, was one of the most popular operas of its day.
Premiered at Paris’ Opera-Comique in November 1866, it received its 100th performance by July the following year, and its 1,000th by 1894. Its reception in Germany, however, was less successful, maybe unsurprisingly so, given that it was based on Goethe’s novel “Wilhelm Meister Lehrjahre,” and that Thomas and his librettists, Barbier and Carré, had changed the the novel’s ending; instead of dying, Mignon and Wilhelm are united in their love. In response to the negative reaction, they rewrote a shorter finale, allowing Mignon to die and thereby restore its tragic ending which, of course, did little to satisfy the critics.
For their production of “Mignon” the Tiroler Landestheater Innsbruck have gone with the tragic ending. In the process, they also made a number of cuts, most notably by deleting two characters: Frédéric, a rival for Philine’s attentions, and the minor character of Antonio, a servant. Thus it was a slimmed down version, lasting around 135 minutes rather than the normal three hours plus, which was presented.
A Different Work Altogether
The director, Helen Malkowsky, however, decided to go further than simply using the tragic ending and making numerous cuts, by deciding to give the drama a further twist; instead of dying in Wihelm’s arms, having finally realized their love for each other, Mignon is left to die, while Wilhelm watches on, their complex feelings for each other left unreconciled. Moreover, she never returns to the “Land of Oranges” (Italy) nor learns that Lothario is her father, as she does according to the libretto. It was a bleak ending, shorn of its sentimental schmaltz, and as a piece of theatre far more satisfying for the fact.
The extent, however, that it ceased to be Thomas’ “Mignon” and became more of a derivative work is a matter for debate.
Malkowsky’s presentation was, in fact, brutal in the extreme, especially for “Mignon.” This is not an 18th century German town, with gypsies and merrymaking, but Paris set sometime between the turn of the 20th century and the present day. Mignon lives on the streets and earns money begging and (unwillingly) from prostitution, in an acknowledgement of the reappearance of slavery into modern day Europe.
Moreover, its juxtaposing with the celebrity life of Philine, something Mignon can only dream of, and something Philine is all to happy to exploit, amplified the indifferent and vicious state of the society. The people who care for Mignon, namely Wilhelm, who eventually realizes he loves her, Lothario, who is really her father, cannot save her. She dies alone, near the metro station where we first encountered her. She had to exit this world before she could find peace.
The sets, designed by Dieter Richter, were excellent, both functionally and aesthetically. The opening scene was centered around an art-nouveau metro station, which was easily restructured, on a rotating platform, to create different stagings; at one point it was used to create a splendid staircase, down which strides Philine in all her finery.
Costume designer, Anke Drewes, produced a colorful array of costumes, which came from different periods. Mignon was dressed in green ill-fitting running trousers and an oversized jumper, typical of a modern day homeless person, while Philine appeared in a 1940s twinset, which she changed later in Act two into a glittering yellow 1930s evening dress, while Wilhelm’s attire was from the 1970s. They all came together seamlessly; there was no jarring effect caused by the clash of period fashions. In Act two, Philine is costumed in an 18th century green and yellow dress for a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which was wonderfully over-the-top and contrasted splendidly with the down-to-earth costumes of Mignon, and highlighted their social and economic differences, made more compelling, not less so, by having the costumes separated by a period of more than 200 years.
The title role of Mignon was played by the mezzo-soprano Camilla Lehmeier, who gave a deeply emotional portrayal in the role. She was a Mignon who truly suffered, destined never to find even a little of the happiness we all seek.
In the opening scene, she is found begging outside the metro station, before being accosted by her owner, and violently forced into having sex for money. Even after Wilhelm buys her freedom, life continues to frustrate her, as Philine treats her with high-handed contempt and Wilhelm shows no romantic interest in her. Eventually, having almost been killed in a fire, it is death which provides her with the only means of escape from her life of torture.
Lehmeier gave a marvelously nuanced and emotionally powerful acting performance, allowing her frustrations to erupt into outbursts of anger, yet at the same time bringing out the sentimental nature of the character who dreamed of a better life. When alone trying on Philine’s clothes, and fantasizing about life she would have liked to have enjoyed, her pathetic behavior was heart-wrenching.
Her vocal interpretation was equally convincing, and brilliantly caught the intensity of Mignon’s feelings, in an deeply expressive performance. Her aria, “Connais-tu le pays où fleurit l’oranger?” in which she reflects on the paradise which was her home when a child, was beautifully rendered, the melody subtly crafted, and underpinned by excellent vocal control.
When she tuns towards anger, however, she was able to give the voice a very different quality, the colors darkening and accents in the vocal line hardening, the power intensifying, yet without ever losing the nuance which defined her performance. It was an all-round excellent performance founded upon a secure technique.
We first meet the soprano, Sophia Theodorides, playing the role of Philine standing in one of Paris’ circular green advertising structures which help define its Parisian quality. She is an actress of at least medium standing, evidenced by the fact her poster is on the hoarding. Mignon has also noticed the poster and is in awe of her.
Theodorides sparkled in the role, and made an excellent counterweight to Mignon’s sentimentality; she was egotistical, self-centered and vicious, but with a bubbly, effervescent veneer. She spent a large part of the performance dressed in a flamboyant, 18th century costume, which contrasted well with Mignon’s dowdy and uninteresting attire, successfully magnifying their differences in character and status.
Her soprano dazzled, and her centerpiece aria from Act two, “Je suis Titania la blonde,” was delivered with verve and energy, her versatile, glittering coloratura sparkled, as she effortlessly knocked out the high notes. And it was all done with confidence and style.
The tenor Jon Jurgens, played the role of Wilhelm, characterizing him as a good natured, although somewhat naïve young man; saving Mignon from Jarno’s sexploitation was the right thing to do, but he was far less sensitive to the effect he has on Mignon’s emotions, and is more than happy to casually disregard her feelings in favor of the manipulative Philine. He has an attractive tenor, with a strong engaging upper register, and was vocally secure throughout the performance. The captivating aria, “Adieu, Mignon” in which he says farewell to Mignon, was poignantly sung, underpinned by carefully contoured phrasing, and colorful contrasts.
Unnsteinn Arnason, playing the role of Lothario, produced a impeccable portrait of a man who has spent too long on the streets. Emotionally distant and hollowed out, Arnason wandered around the stage with a vacant disposition. Although he has a firm, warm bass he was careful not to allow it to become gentle and sweet sounding, which would have destroyed his characterization, and reduced his role to no more than a parody.
Laertes, who is not a particularly colorful character, was played by the tenor Florian Sternm who was unable to do much with the role. He has a pleasing sounding voice, and made a solid, if uninteresting impression.
Joachim Seipp made a fearsomely looking Jarno, with his tattooed face and leather gear. His brutal treatment of Mignon, forcing her into a dress and high heels, and then into having sex with anyone willing to pay was unpleasantly realistic. The fact that she was his property was never in any doubt. Although he sang with power, and certainly exhibited menace, the voice did not always sound secure.
The augmented chorus of the Tirol Landestheater, under the direction of Chorus master, Michel Roberge produced a lively and forceful performance. The finale to Act one was particularly pleasing, as the entire cast trouped off down the into the metro; it was excellently choreographed and wonderfully sung, and brought the curtain down on a fascinating scene.
The Tiroler Symphonieorchester Innsbruck, under the direction of Seokwon Hong, gave a solid, precise reading, in which rhythmic and dynamic changes were closely monitored. Hong paid close attention to scores varied textures, and successfully elicited the changing moods of the work. The control and precision, however, meant that at times, there was a lack of spontaneity, which gave certain sections a leaden feel, but they were the exception rather than rule, in what was an otherwise sparkling and lively performance.
As with many of Tiroler Landesheater’s productions, “Mignon” proved to be an innovative, thought-provoking and entertaining interpretation, even if it was somewhat unfaithful to the composer and his librettists’ original, (and revised) work.
Ultimately, however, it did not suffer from incoherence and actually sharpened the dramatic force of the work, as well as making it more engaging for a modern audience. Moreover, it was an opportunity to see what is now a rarely performed opera.