A Woman of Mystery: Ambroise Thomas's 'Mignon'

WOO-1231-Mignon-300-5Mozart's little song "The Violet," from 1785, is hardly among his most imposing pieces, yet it did help to form tip of an artistic iceberg. It's among the earliest settings of poetry by one of the world's great writers, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose works went on to inspire an enormous and distinguished body of music.

Goethe's poems alone led to so many songs that it might well be impossible to list them all. They include a sizeable collection by perhaps the greatest of all song composers, Franz Schubert -- a set that features what may be the most famous art song in history, "Der Erlkönig" (The Erlking).

Faust, Goethe's most famous play, may have inspired more great music than any other drama -- everything from a symphony by Liszt to a musical by Randy Newman. And Faust also provided the story, and the title, for one of the most successful French operas ever composed, the 1859 hit by Charles Gounod.

Just a few years after Gounod's Faust premiered at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris, the same city's Opéra Comique launched another new opera, also based on Goethe, that at the time was even more popular: Mignon, by Ambroise Thomas. Thomas based his opera on Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship."

Thomas had already written 17 operas when Mignon appeared in 1866. Many of them were in styles reminiscent of other composers, including Rossini and Donizetti. But with Mignon, he seemed to find a style all his own. It was his biggest hit by far, and remains one of only two operas by Thomas that are likely to be heard today, along with his well-known setting of Shakespeare's Hamlet.

The librettos for both of those operas were by the same team of writers, Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, who also wrote the libretto for Gounod's Faust. The two have been roundly criticized for both Faust and Hamlet. Yet their libretto for Mignon is widely admired -- perhaps because they seemed to sense from the start that their best bet was to concentrate on the mysterious character of Mignon, rather than the title character in Goethe's novel, the student Wilhelm.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Mignon from Switzerland's Grand Theatre of Geneva. The stars are mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch in the enigmatic title role, soprano Diana Damrau as the vindictive actress Philine, and tenor Paolo Fanale as Wilhelm, the young man who wanders through nearly the entire opera before realizing he's fallen in love with the wrong woman. The production also features the Suisse Romande Orchestra, with conductor Frédéric Chaslin.