The French connection

Mignon - Ambroise Thomas - Buxton Festival - 12 July 2011''Mignon - Wendy Dawn Thompson'Philine - Gillian Keith - xxx - centre'Wilhelm - Ryan MacPherson'Lothario - Russell Smythe'Laerte - Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks'Jarno - Mark Holland'Frederick - Amar Muchhala'Mignon as a young girl - Libby Fraser'Porter - Geoff Lunn''Director - Annilese Miskimmon'Designer - Nicky Shaw'Lighting - John Bishop
Mignon - Ambroise Thomas - Buxton Festival - 12 July 2011''Mignon - Wendy Dawn Thompson'Philine - Gillian Keith - xxx - centre'Wilhelm - Ryan MacPherson'Lothario - Russell Smythe'Laerte - Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks'Jarno - Mark Holland'Frederick - Amar Muchhala'Mignon as a young girl - Libby Fraser'Porter - Geoff Lunn''Director - Annilese Miskimmon'Designer - Nicky Shaw'Lighting - John Bishop

BUXTON Festival’s third flagship opera staging this year is Mignon, Ambroise Thomas’ once extremely popular opera based on an episode in Goethe’s first Wilhelm Meister novel.

French opera is notoriously difficult to bring off with total success when it is sung in a ‘foreign’ language and, not without some irony, although the production is sung in English, the vernacular translation also appears in surtitle form.

Having said that, in its Anglo Saxon way it comes off reasonably well musically, if lacking in charm and allure at times.

Andrew Greenwood conducts the work with obvious love for the melodiously sophisticated score, though dwells a little too lovingly on occasion. The Overture and Mignon’s famous Connais-tu le pays, in particular, were rather drawn out on the first night.

The romanticised sentimentality of the plot – child (Mignon) abducted by gypsies, bought from them as a young woman by the ‘man of her dreams’ and eventually all ends happily (in Goethe she dies) – may be passé for modern audience taste.

Annilese Miskimmon direction, resetting the opera in the 1920s, doesn’t rob it completely of sentimentality but gives it a gritty edge.

There are no gypsies; they become fellow theatre (and circus) types for Philine and Laerte, and the mind-wandering minstrel Lothario roams aimlessly, suffice to say if you don’t know the story, not with a harp but clutching a small battered suitcase.

The drawbacks are the sets. The farce-like comings and goings through doors in act one becomes extremely irritating, while the art décor, all-white box hospital room (not envisaged by Thomas) of act three brings to mind an asylum.

When Philine’s dressing room lifts between the two scenes of act two revealing the full expanse of stage, you can see what Miskimmon could have achieved with minimal means had she not tied herself to a concept approach.

The opera is extremely well sung with excellent performances throughout, Wendy Dawn Thompson, done up to look like Pierrot, lavishing a cleanly focussed mezzo soprano voice on Mignon which remains steady during her conductor’s broad tempi for her famous aria.

As her saviour Wilhelm Meister is a very impressive American lyric tenor with a ringing top, Ryan MacPherson who turns in splendid accounts of his two well-known arias, Adieu, Mignon and Elle ne croyait pas.

Gillian Keith delivers the opera’s other famous aria, Philine’s polonaise Je suis Titania, with élan while perched on a suspended crescent moon and veteran baritone Russell Smythe, his voice heavier and darker these days, is Lothario.

lBAMPTON Classical Opera’s staging of Cimarosa’s L’Italiana in Londra, or The Italian Girl in London, brought forward in time 200 years to when Rubik’s Cube was all the rage is great fun.

The company specialises in lesser-known, late 18th century repertoire (ie: Classical period operas) and was founded in 1993 by its artistic directors Gilly French and Jeremy Gray who provide the opera’s witty English translation, while the latter as also the stage director.

For a small company, its production values are very high if this staging is anything to go by.

The work is actually termed an intermezzo, so don’t expect anything too demanding – unless it’s trying to follow the plot! – and you will probably have fun recognising pre-echoes of Mozart and Rossini.

The action takes place in the lounge of a down-market London hotel, the Nelson Hotel, next to Trafalgar Square underground station, wherein an Englishman, a Dutchman and an Italian are vying for the attention of the French waitress, the Italian girl in disguise.

There is a Fawlty Towers feel about it with a standout performance from Nicholas Merryweather as the Italian tourist Don Polidoro that is vocally outstanding with superb comic timing.

Caryl Hughes as the hotel owner Madama Brillante who takes a shine to him is also excellent, Kim Sheehan gives vocal evidence as to why she has an international reputation as Livia/ Henriette and Adam Tunnicliffe is fine as the Dutch travelling salesman Sumers.

Robert Winslade Anderson is fine, too, as the minor English aristocrat but also a little perplexing. Although you hear him, his voice doesn’t project.