July 12, 2012
The Guardian by Tim Ashley
First performed in 1866, Ambroise Thomas’s Mignon was a favourite with 19th-century audiences, though subsequent generations of listeners tended to shy away from it. Loosely based on Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, it’s a touching, discreetly erotic piece about burgeoning sexuality and dreams of stability in a shifting world.
Mignon is androgynous, innocent and unwanted by society. She is attracted to thoughtless Wilhelm, who rescues her from the abusive world of a travelling circus, only to ignore her emotionally when he becomes drawn to the promiscuous actress Philine. The tramp with whom Mignon develops an intuitive understanding, meanwhile, is – unknown to them both – her father Lothario, driven half-insane by his search for the daughter taken from him as a child. Thomas’s score has an unsentimental beauty as well as great charm.
Conducted by Andrew Greenwood and directed by Annilese Miskimmon, the Buxton festival’s new production leaves you wondering why the opera has been neglected for so long. Miskimmon, relocating it to the brittle world of the 1920s, carefully probes the delicate balance between reality and illusion. Gillian Keith’s Philine gets a big production number for her giddy coloratura Polonaise while Ryan MacPherson’s Wilhelm seems to have strayed from a Hollywood studio.
Wendy Dawn Thompson’s fragile, heartbreaking Mignon, however, and Russell Smythe’s Lothario, dragging his daughter’s toys around in a battered suitcase, are constant reminders of the sadness beneath the glamour, though the happy ending brings a smile to your face and a tear to your eye. The occasional opening-night vocal slips didn’t matter much: this is beautifully integrated music theatre that immerses you completely in its world.