Music with Ease > 19th Century French Opera > Mignon (Thomas) - Synopsis
Mignon - Synopsis
An Opera by Ambroise Thomas
Opera in three acts by Ambroise Thomas, words, based on Goethes "Wilhelm Meister," by Barbier and Carré. Produced, Opéra Comique, Paris, November 17, 1866. London, Drury Lane, July 5, 1870. New York, Academy of Music, November 22, 1871, with Nilsson, Duval (Filina), Mlle. Ronconi (Frederick) and Capoul; Metropolitan Opera House, October 21, 1883, with Nilsson, Capoul, and Scalchi (Frederick).
MIGNON, stolen in childhood from an Italian castle
PHILINE, an actress
FREDERICK, a young nobleman
Buffo Tenor or Contralto
WILHELM, a student on his travels
LAERTES, an actor
GIARNO, a gypsy
ANTONIO, a servant
Townspeople, gypsies, actors and actresses, servants, etc.
Time: Late 18th Century.
Place: Acts I and II, Germany. Act III, Italy.
Notwithstanding the popularity of two airs in "Mignon" -- "Connais-tu le pays?" and the "Polonaise" -- the opera is given in America but infrequently. It is a work of delicate texture; of charm rather than passion; with a story that is, perhaps, too ingenuous to appeal to the sophisticated audience of the modern opera house. Moreover the "Connais-tu le pays" was at one time done to death here, both by concert singers and amateurs. Italian composers are fortunate in having written music so difficult technically that none but the most accomplished singers can risk it.
The early performances of "Mignon" in this country were in Italian, and were more successful than the later revivals in French, by which time the opera had become somewhat passé. From these early impressions we are accustomed to call Philine by her Italian equivalent of Filina. Frederic, since Trebelli appeared in the role in London, has become a contralto instead of a buffo tenor part. The "Rondo Gavotte" in Act II, composed for her by Thomas, has since then been a fixture in the score. She appeared in the role at the Metropolitan Opera House, December 5, 1883, with Nilsson and Capoul.
Act I. Courtyard of a German inn. Chorus of townspeople and travellers. Lothario, a wandering minstrel, sings, accompanying himself on his harp, "Fugitif et tremblant" (A lonely wanderer). Filina and Laertes, on the way with their troupe to give a theatrical performance in a neighbouring castle, appear on a balcony. Mignon is sleeping on straw in the back of a gypsy cart. Giarno, chief of the gypsy band, rouses her. She refuses to dance. He threatens her with a stick. Lothario and Wilhelm protect her. Mignon divides a bouquet of wild flowers between them.
Laertes, who has come down from the balcony, engages Wilhelm in conversation. Filina joins them. Wilhelm is greatly impressed with her blonde beauty. He does not protest when Laertes takes from him the wild flowers he has received from Mignon and hands them to Filina.
When Filina and Laertes have gone, there is a scene between Wilhelm and Mignon. The girl tells him of dim memories of her childhood -- the land from which she was abducted. It is at this point she sings "Connais-tu le pays" (Knowest thou the land). Wilhelm decides to purchase her freedom, and enters the inn with Giarno to conclude the negotiations. Lothario, who is about to wander on, has been attracted to her, and, before leaving, bids her farewell. They have the charming duet, "Legères hirondelles" (O swallows, lightly gliding). There is a scene for Filina and Frederic, a booby, who is in love with her. Filina is after better game. She is setting her cap for Wilhelm. Lothario wishes to take Mignon with him. But Wilhelm fears for her safety with the old man, whose mind sometimes appears to wander. Moreover Mignon ardently desires to remain in the service of Wilhelm who has freed her from bondage to the gypsies, and when Wilhelm declines to let her go with Lothario, is enraptured, until she sees her wild flowers in Filinas hand. For already she is passionately in love with Wilhelm, and jealous when Filina invites him to attend the theatricals at the castle. Wilhelm waves adieu to Filina, as she drives away. Lothario, pensive, remains seated. Mignon's gaze is directed toward Wilhelm.
Act II. Filinas boudoir at the castle. The actress sings of her pleasure in these elegant surroundings and of Wilhelm. Laertes is heard without, singing and madrigal to Filina, "Belle, ayez pitié de nous" (Fair one, pity take on us).
He ushers in Wilhelm and Mignon, then withdraws. Mignon, pretending to fall asleep, watches Wilhelm and Filina. While Wilhelm hands to the actress various toilet accessories, they sing a graceful duet, "Je crois entendre les doux compliments" (Pray, let me hear now the sweetest of phrases). Meanwhile Mignons heart is tormented with jealousy. When Wilhelm and Filina leave the boudoir the girl dons one of Filinas costumes, seats herself at the mirror and puts on rouge and other cosmetics, as she has seen Filina do. In a spirit of abandon she sings a "Styrienne," "Je connais un pauvre enfant" (A gypsy lad I well do know). She then withdraws into an adjoining room. Frédéric enters the boudoir in search of Filipina. He sings the gavotte, "Me voici dans son boudoir" (Here am I in her boudoir). Wilhelm comes in, in search of Mignon. The men meet. There is an exchange of jealous accusations. They are about to fight, when Mignon rushes between them. Frédéric recognizes Filinas costume on her, and goes off laughing. Wilhelm, realizing the awkward situation that may arise from the girls following him about, tells her they must part. "Adieu, Mignon, courage" (Farewell, Mignon, have courage). She bids him a sad farewell. Filina re-enters. Her sarcastic references to Mignons attire wound the girl to the quick. When Wilhelm leads out the actress on his arm, Mignon exclaims: "That woman! I loathe her!"
The second scene of this act is laid in the castle park. Mignon, driven to distraction, is about to throw herself into the lake, when she hears the strains of a harp. Lothario, who has wandered into the park, is playing. There is an exchange of affection, almost paternal on his part, almost filial on hers, in their duet, "As-tu souffert? As-tu pleuré?" (Hast thou known sorrow? Hast thou wept?). Mignon hears applause and acclaim from the conservatory for Filinas acting. In jealous rage she cries out that she wishes the building might be struck by lightning and destroyed by fire; then runs off and disappears among the trees. Lothario vaguely repeats her words. "Fire, she said! Ah, fire! fire!" Through the trees he wanders off in the direction of the conservatory, just as its doors are thrown open and the guests and actors issue forth.
They have been playing "A Midsummer Nights Dream," and Filina, flushed with success, sings the brilliant "Polonaise," "Je suis Titania" (Behold Titania, fair and gay). Mignon appears. Wilhelm, who has sadly missed her, greets her with so much joy that Filina sends her into the conservatory in search of the wild flowers given to Wilhelm the day before. Soon after Mignon has entered the conservatory it is seen to be in flames. Lothario, obedient to her jealous wish, has set it on fire. At the risk of his life Wilhelm rushes into the burning building and reappears with Mignons fainting form in his arms. He places her on a grassy bank. Her hand still holds a bunch of withered flowers.
Act III. Gallery in an Italian castle, to which Wilhelm has brought Mignon and Lothario. Mignon has been dangerously ill. A boating chorus is heard from the direction of a lake below. Lothario, standing by the door of Mignons sick-room, sings a lullaby, "De son coeur jai calmé la fièvre" (Ive soothed the throbbing of her aching heart). Wilhelm tells Lothario that they are in the Cipriani castle, which he intends to buy for Mignon. At the name of the castle Lothario is strangely agitated.
Wilhelm has heard Mignon utter his own name in her aberrations during her illness. He sings, "Elle ne croyait pas" (She does not know). When she enters the gallery from her sick-room and looks out on the landscape, she is haunted by memories. There is a duet for Mignon and Wilhelm, "Je suis heureuse, lair menivre" (Now I rejoice, life reawakens). Filinas voice is heard outside. The girl is violently agitated. But Wilhelm reassures her.
In the scenes that follow, Lothario, his reason-restored by being again in familiar surroundings, recognizes in the place his own castle and in Mignon his daughter, whose loss had unsettled his mind and sent him, in minstrels disguise, wandering in search of her. The opera closes with a trio for Mignon, Wilhelm, and Lothario. In it is heard the refrain of "Connais-tu le pays."
Ambroise Thomas was born at Metz, August 5, 1811; died at Paris, February 12, 1896. He studied at the Paris Conservatory, where, in 1832, he won the Grand Prix de Rome. In 1871, he became director of the conservatory, being considered Aubers immediate successor, although the post was held for a few days by the communist Salvador Daniel, who was killed in battle, May 23rd.