Wednesday 9 November 2011

Review of Mireille - New Sussex Opera

Caroline Carvalho as Marguerite
Goodness knows what Gounod was thinking when he wrote the title role of his opera Mireille, given that it was to be premiered at the Teatre-Lyrique in Paris. The director of the theatre was Leon Carvalho and his wife, Marie Caroline Miolan-Carvalho was one of the most famous sopranos of her day and created both Juliette and Marguerite for Gounod. She was a lyric coloratura and Juliette was her ideal role.

The title role of Mireille starts as a straightforward lyric role, but by the time we get to Act 4, when Mireille is struggling across the Crau in burning heat, Gounod takes the role into dramatic territory; add to this the fact that  the soprano is on stage for a significant amount of the opera and you get a problem. Madame Miolan-Carvalho's solution was to get the opera re-written. 5 acts down to 3, gloomy bits out, happy ending in and a delightful valse-ariette added for the soprano.

Luckily for us, in the 1930's Reynaldo Hahn and a pupil of Gounod's, Henri Busser, restored the score to its original 5-act version (gloomy bits in,  valse-ariette out) and it was this version which New Sussex Opera brought to London's Cadogan Hall on Tuesday 8th. The production, designed and directed by Tony Baker and conducted by Nicholas Jenkins, had already been seen in Lewes and Eastbourne. The group is based in Brighton, Lewes and Eastbourne and aims to produce high-quality performances involving both professional and amateurs. Their choice of repertoire is usually enterprising and previous productions have included Offenbach's Die Rheinnixen and Vaughan Williams's Hugh the Drover, future productions include Puccini's Edgar and Wagner's Die Feen.

Inevitably Baker's production was simple and straightforward, after all the Cadogan Hall has no facilities for scenery, no wings and no backstage. Baker's solution was highly imaginative and involved the use of simple table and chairs to create all sorts of milieu, helped by Karle Oskar Sordal's lighting.

Caroline Carvalho as Mireille
The plot, which is based on a poem by the Provencal poet Frederic Mistral, involves Mireille (Sally Silver) who is in love with a poor basket-weaver far below her in the social scale. The basket weaver, Vincent, was supposed to be played by Michael Scott, but he had lost his voice so he acted the role and Mark Milhofer sang it from the side of the stage. Gounod's opening acts are mainly scenic, with lots of characterful chorus action and a little bit of plot advancement. As part of the celebrations in Arles in Act 2 we get a Farandole,  the dance for which Provence is famous. It is only at the end of this act that the real drama happens. Mireille is approached by Ourrias (Quentin Hayes), who is her father's choice for her husband but she refuses him. Mireille's father Ramon (Robert Presley) forbids her to marry Vincent and curses both Vincent, his father Ambroise (Paul Waite) and his sister Vincenette (Hilary Jane Andrews).

Vincent and Ourrias fight a duel and Vincent is injured. Ourrias thinks he has killed Vincent, goes mad and commits suicide. Vincent is saved by Taven (Sarah Pring) a witch who supports Mireille and crops up periodically offering support and doom sayings. Luckily Pring played down the mad witch element and made her more of a sensible, wise-woman. Mireille decides to go on pilgrimage to the church of Saintes-Maries and become exhausted and disorientated when crossing the Crau at mid-day. She and Vincent are re-united at Saintes-Maries but as pilgrim's process Mireille dies and is ushered to heaven by the ghost of her mother.

The opera is regarded by many as one of Gounod's masterpieces and certainly he provides some strongly dramatic situations and some profoundly affecting writing. Jenkins, Baker and their forces gave the work with tremendous commitment and no little flair so that by the end of the evening you wondered why it didn't crop up in operatic life more often.

As far as I know London has seen the work staged twice in living memory, both times at ENO; first for Valerie Masterson and later during their re-building season. Neither run seems to have generated a run of performances in other areas. One of the problems is undoubtedly the title role, requiring some coloratura skill, stamina, dramatic force, plus the ability to convince as a young girl. Effectively Gounod has written a role which, dramatically, starts out as Micaela and finishes as Carmen.

Luckily in Sally Silver, NSO had a soprano completely equal to the role. Silver's bright tones and beautifully focused lyric tones created an attractive picture of a lively young woman in the first 2 acts, granted her fioriture were perhaps a bit too dramatic, but the results were all of a piece and charmed. Then in her big Act 4 solo scene, she developed superbly and showed herself fully equal to the dramatic demands, giving a moving and vividly engaging performance; she even managed to die nicely. The role requires no little stamina and in length is by far the biggest role in the opera. Silver seemed completely unphased by its demands and preserved her tone until the very end. This was a total triumph and I certainly hope the this stunning performance brings its rewards; and I hope that someone else mounts a production of the opera for her.

Michael Scott made a visually convincing young basket weaver, this was a production where you did not need to excuse the age of the principals. He and Silver made a charming pairing and it was a shame that we could not hear him as well. But Mark Milhofer sang the role as if he'd been doing it all his life, bringing a nice flexibility to the line and duetting charmingly with Silver. Vincent is one of those roles where the singer interacts with others rather than getting a big solo scene of his own, but Milhofer and Scott created an effective and believable character both musically and dramatically.

Quentin Hayes was also announced as suffering a cold so this perhaps explains a little which his performance, though musical, lacked a little in vividness. This also might have been Gounod's fault; Ourrias's big solo when he announces his interest in her is obviously intended to swagger in the way that Bizet's music for the toreador does in Carmen (Ourrias is after all a bull-tender), but it didn't do so quite hear, despite some effective pleading from Hayes, Jenkins and the orchestra. Given the limitations of the stage, the fight scene between Hayes and Scott/Milhofer worked rather well and did fair crackle with a vivid energy.

I thought that Robert Presley as Ramon was a little too avuncularly sympathetic; this worked in the later scenes when he regrets his actions, but in the crucial Act 2 cursing of Vincent and his family, Presley seemed to lack the vicious edge which the role requires. Paul Waite as Vincent's father was effective in what is a rather underwritten role. Sarah Pring successfully trod a fine line as Taven, never quite going off into dotty witch mode but convincing us of the character's stubborn otherness.

The remaining soloists were provided by members of the NSO ensemble with Hilary Jane Andrewes as Vincenette, Red Gray as Clemence, Thalie Knights as a Shepherdess, Rachel Shouksmith as the ghost of Mireille's mother, Tim Lock as the Ferryman, Richard Fisher as Echo, John Cobb as a man from Arles, Fiona Baines as Azalais, Anastasia Witts as Norade and Marie Goulding as Violane. All gave creditable performances but the stand-out one was Hilary Jane Andrews whose duet with Mireille in Act 4 was one of the works subtle highlights.

Despite the relatively constricted acting area, Baker and his choreographer Caroline Pope, managed some convincing ensemble dancing for the farandole, even involving a childrens chorus! (The project also included workshops in Sussex schools relating to Mireille).

Nicholas Jenkins and the St. Paul's Sinfonia did full justice to Gounod's score, the Jenkins coaxing some nicely flexible playing from the 34 strong ensemble. It is to their credit that the relatively small string forces never seemed to tell against them and in the resonant Cadogan Hall acoustics they came across is vibrant and effective.

The chorus were immensely hard-working, appearing in a high proportion of the scenes and acting as scene shifters in all the others. The enthusiasm and commitment were palpable and it is a delight to be able to record that all their undoubted hard work paid off in a polished and highly convincing performance; only in the final choruses did Gounod's tricky choral writing threaten to disturb things but even this was a mere blip and what was a fine performance.

I'm not quite convinced that Gounod's opera is a complete masterpiece, but it certainly warrants hearing more often than it is and I definitely think it a great improvement on Romeo et Juliette. Certainly the first two acts are rather leisurely, rather too interested in local colour (Gounod wrote a lot of the opera whilst staying in Provence), but once the drama gets going it certainly picks up. Reading about the re-construction work that Busser did on the score, it seems that the original run may have used some spoken dialogue and I did wonder whether this might have helped to keep things moving in the first 2 acts.

But, all the way through I kept on thinking, what would Bizet have made of this, the drama would have seemed ideal for him. Whilst Gounod has come up with a charming, well-made score which rises to the dramatic occasion, you can't help feeling that Bizet might have produced a rather more arresting work.

Still, it is all credit to New Sussex Opera that they have given us the opportunity to re-evaluate Mireille and done so in such a highly effective and stunning manner.


  1. I agree with your enthusiasm as I enjoyed it immensely particulary after a dismal ROH Sonnambula the night before. I couldn't help thinking what Silver would have made of the role of Amina.

  2. Anonymous4:58 pm

    His surname is Presley, not Priestly, not Preston. Poor editing on your part.

  3. Apologies, names now corrected.


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