Ambroise THOMAS (1811 – 1896)
Mignon (1866/1870) [138.31]
Lothario – Ezio Pinza (bass)
Philine – Mimi Benzell (soprano)
Wilhelm – James Melton (tenor)
Laerte – Donald Dame (tenor)
Jarno – John Gurney (bass)
Mignon – Rise Stevens (mezzo)
Frederic – Lucille Browning (contralto)
Antonio – Osie Hawkins (bass)
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Wilfred Pelletier
rec. live, 27 January 1945, Metropolitan Opera House, New York
SONY CLASSICAL 88697 96192 2 [77.21 + 61.10]

If you consider Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister then the libretto of Ambroise Thomas’s Mignon is an awful farrago, with Wilhelm’s picaresque coming of age reduced to a love triangle. As with the same composer’s Hamlet and Gounod’s Faust, you have to forget the literary original and concentrate on the French opera. Though, frankly, even as a French opera this piece is rather light on plot development and heavy on coincidence.
The work was written as an opéra comique with the title role being sung by Celestine Galli-Marie who went on to create Carmen nine years later. This makes you wonder what a composer like Bizet might have made of the dark undertones present in the original book. Thomas, on the other hand, was content simply to decorate the story with his attractively melodic arias; it is this melodic skill which has kept the piece on the fringes of the repertoire.
Thomas revised the work in 1870, adding recitatives and making other changes including shortening the finale. It is in this format that the work became common, the opéra comique version only really surfacing again in 1986 when performed at the Wexford Festival.
This recording, dating from 1945, is taken live from the Met and features Rise Stevens as Mignon, evidently one of her signature roles; it was the role in which she made her Met debut in 1938. The cast also features Ezio Pinza as Lotario, the blind harpist who turns out to be Mignon’s father.
The performance places the work most definitely in the region of grand opera. Not only is it performed with sung recitative but all the principals give big dramatic performances. There are some fine moments such as Stevens’s solo at the end of Act 2. All very fine in its way, but you feel that the opera is being inflated above its natural size. Thomas’s pleasantly melodic art does not really bear the weight placed on it.
In the right circumstances Mignon is charming, but here you just wonder what all the fuss is about. Connais-tu le Pays is nicely done and Stevens emotes magnificently but, inevitably given her strong mezzo-soprano voice, sounds more mature than she should. Mimi Benzell as Philine has a slightly edgy sound at times, but she copes nicely with the coloratura.
James Melton is a fine open-voiced Wilhelm; the character is a bit of a nonentity. Melton does little to make him interesting but contents himself with singing well. Pinza makes a strong character of Lotario, his dark and interesting voice giving some character depth.
The standard of sung French is somewhat loose, you would not mistake many of the voices for natural French speakers. The choral singing is variable and ensemble can be poor. The sound is only passable and gets very congested in places.
The CD booklet includes track-listing and synopsis but no libretto.
I don’t really think that the performance does justice to Thomas’s Mignon. The set is perhaps only of real interest to lovers of the art of Rise Stevens.
Robert Hugill

The performance does little justice to Thomas’s Mignon. Only of real interest to lovers of the art of Rise Stevens.