Gounod: Mireille

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Gounod
LABELS: FRA Musica
WORKS: Mireille
PERFORMER: Inva Mula, Charles Castronovo, Franck Ferrari, Alain Vernhes, Sylvie Brunet, Anne-Catherine Gillet; Paris National Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Marc Minkowski; dir. Nicolas Joel (Paris, 2009)
CATALOGUE NO: FRA 002

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Five years after Faust, Gounod became fascinated by a poem currently in Parisian vogue, the young Frederic Mistral’s love-epic Miréio, in his neglected Provençal dialect. At his invitation the composer visited Provence, touring the poem’s locales, and composed this operatic version, premiered in Paris, London and Philadelphia during 1864.

It wasn’t a success, although Gounod softened it considerably, adding virtuoso arias and a happy ending, until an 1889 Opéra-Comique revival. In the 1930s the original was largely restored, but its popularity was fading; it would only attract two complete recordings, the first under the baton of André Cluytens (1954) and the second conducted by Michel Plasson (1979).

This DVD is therefore a labour of love for the Paris Opera’s director Nicolas Joel, who considers Gounod France’s greatest 19th-century composer, even against Berlioz. That’s debatable: Gounod’s pastoral score, stiffened with fragments of Provençal folk-tunes, is highly seductive, but his darker, more supernatural scenes sound cheesily antique and intrusive. And his characters are sketchy, only the heroine fully drawn. Mireille’s final sacrifice undoubtedly recalls his sanctimonous side.

Still, this is beautifully done, the cast looking as if they were straight out of films like Manon des sources, and singing superbly. Inva Mula’s pretty heroine moves appealingly from sparkle to pathos, and in their folk-inspired ‘Chanson du Magali’ her fresh soprano blends well with handsome lover Charles Castronovo’s lyrical tenor.

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Franck Ferrari’s jealous Urrias, sweaty and haunted, and Alain Vernhes as her father Ramon, make excellent heavies, balanced by Sylvia Brunhet’s kindly hedge-witch Taven. In Blu-Ray the sets radiate Peter Mayle-ish atmosphere – the hazy sweeping cornfield, the great Rhône. Minkowski’s sprightly conducting highlights the folksy energy and minimizes the saccharine. It’s hard to imagine making a better present-day case for Mireille. Michael Scott Rohan