At one point in James Joyce's short story "The Dead," the talk around the supper table turns to Dublin's Theater Royal. One character had just seen "Mignon." "Of course it was very fine," Mary Jane says. But it made her think of poor Georgina Burns. And it made her wonder why other grand old operas are no longer done. "Because they could not get the voices to sing them, that's why," she's told.
When Joyce published that story in "The Dubliners" nearly a hundred years ago, Ambroise Thomas' "Mignon," which had a rare outing in Santa Barbara this past weekend, was as common as "Carmen" and "La Boheme" are today. It has been played literally a thousand times in Paris, where it had its Opera-Comique premiere in 1866. The first Mignon, Celestine Galli-Marie, created Carmen nine years later.
"Mignon" remained a favorite up to the second World War, but then faded into obscurity. Marilyn Horne and Frederica von Stade were the last notable Mignons in the '70s and '80s, but they served a lost cause. There is only one major full recording of the opera -- Horne's from 1977 -- and it has become a collector's item.
Horne now runs the voice program at the Music Academy of the West and she decided to try once more to revive a relic for the institute's annual summer opera at the Lobero Theatre over the weekend. Voices are not the problem. Young singers can sing anything these days. The reason "Mignon" is neglected is because it really is old-fashioned. It made me think of poor Gidget. Or, more accurately, it might have made me think of poor Gidget if some sort of soap-opera relevance had been wanted.
The music doesn't lack charm. And an interesting theatrical solution to the staging should be possible; if not a poor surfer girl, than at least something. But the director Casey Stangl played it straight, at least until the last minute, as if "Mignon" were one more antique in a well-off beach town.
The opera takes its tale from Goethe's "Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship." Mignon -- who was kidnapped by gypsies as a child but can't remember why -- is a dancer with a minstrels troupe when she encounters Wilhelm. He buys her freedom but does not return her love. He is smitten with a flirtatious actress, Philine.
A fire and a remarkable turn of events lead to the minstrel and Mignon's protector, Lothario, recalling that he is rich and her father. Wilhelm discovers Mignon's beauty and depth. Goethe's novel ends in tragedy, but following opera comique convention, Mignon, Wilhelm and Lothario sing a celebratory trio.
At Sunday's matinee, Simone Osborne, a 22-year-old Canadian soprano from Vancouver, was a girlish Mignon. Like Carmen, the role was originally intended for a mezzo-soprano but became something sopranos sought out. It suits Osborne, who has a luscious lower mezzo range (if a weak top).
Mignon's best-known aria, "Connais-tu le pays" ("Do you know the land"), from which Puccini learned a lesson in sentimentality, did not find Osborne fully warmed up. She and two other principals had taken ill and were unable to sing Friday, the opening night of the two-performance run. That no doubt contributed to a general uncertainly in Sunday's matinee. But Osborne got stronger throughout the performance and became a joy to hear.
Celia Zambon Wollenberg was a perky Philine. She camped up her showy polonaise, "Je suis Titania," the number from the opera with the most staying power (Callas and Sills sang it). Wollenberg also lacked high notes but not dazzle.
Tenor Joshua Stewart (Wilhelm) and bass-baritone Benjamin Clements (Lothario) were ill-at-ease, but who could blame them? They were stuffed into designer Anna Bjornsdotter's period costumes and an alternately stilted and silly staging. The production also wasted a fine mezzo, Jennifer Feinstein, turning her into a foppish parody of Frederick, a suitor to Philine. The fact is that no single singer, dancer or chorister appeared convincing on stage.
George Manahan conducted a stylish small orchestra with almost enough elan. Jean-Francois Revon designed cutout, painted sets in strong colors.
There was one directorial flourish. Mignon died at the end. The production set up no irony. The music spelled no despair. Stangl simply -- symbolically? -- killed off her heroine.