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Grand Théâtre in Geneva

In Review Geneve Mignon lg 812
Damrau as Philine in Geneva's Mignon
© GTG/Yunus Durukan 2012

The Grand Théâtre in Geneva continued its season with a strongly cast performance of Ambroise Thomas's Mignon in the Opéra Comique production by Jean-Louis Benoît, with Frédéric Chaslin conducting the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande.

It is difficult to forget Emmanuel Chabrier's spiteful quip about Thomas — "There are two kinds of music; good and bad. And then there is the music of Ambroise Thomas" — but on May 9 it was difficult to resist the bucolic charm of Mignon's nostalgic "Connais-tu le pays?" or the brilliance of Philine's polonaise. The dramatic structure of the work is not the strongest. After Mignon is saved from gypsy slavery by Wilhelm Meister, with whom she falls in love despite the rivalry of the actress Philine, the final act brings a precipitous denouement. The ailing Mignon discovers she is the daughter of the temporarily deranged minstrel Lothario, and learns that the chateau where she was born has been serendipitously purchased by Wilhelm. Thomas uses his gentle, tuneful themes with skill, and humor and tragedy rub shoulders in an endearing opéra comique manner.

Laurent Peduzzi's sets — conceived for the intimate Salle Favart — were dwarfed by the dimensions of the Grand Théâtre. But Benoît's production is a charming piece of traditional work, with the spoken dialogue (often a weakness in this repertoire) particularly well played. Sophie Koch repeated her touching interpretation of Mignon from Paris, offering the transformation of the heroine from an enslaved ragamuffin to a blossoming young woman, sexually awakened by Wilhelm Meister. Vocally, it sounds as if this wonderfully gifted mezzo is paying the price for some recklessly assumed Wagner roles. The rich timbre is poignant and the shaping of the music masterful, but awkward register changes, diminished flexibility and a top that only responded fitfully spell danger. 

For admirable technical security one had to turn to the Philine of Diana Damrau — not a typical arch soubrette interpretation but a manipulative woman of whom Mignon could justifiably be jealous. The polonaise was splendidly sung in near-perfect French, with glittering passagework and delightful use of a poking magic wand. Sicilian Paolo Fanale, who took over the role of Wilhelm Meister only at the beginning of the stage rehearsals, produced a flow of glowing tenor tone, nuanced and sensitively phrased, with powerful high notes. His attractive stage presence helped to pardon his anecdotal French. The deranged Lothario was sung by cavernous bass Nicolas Courjal, whose attempts at sensitive details sometimes caused his voice to lose focus. Special mention goes to the excellent supporting players, who included promising mezzo Carine Séchaye as Frédéric, the clumsy adolescent suitor of Philine; tenor Emilio Pons as a well projected theatrical Laërte; and baritone Frédéric Goncalves as Jarno, the unlovable Gypsy who kidnapped baby Mignon.

Chaslin led a beautifully played account of the score, but one that sounded too plush for this repertoire, which might have benefited from more Gallic astringency and pace. spacer


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