Mireille is the sleeper among Gounod’s opera. Written in 1864 as a five-act opera, the composer was to some extent flouting convention by choosing an intimate, pastoral and relatively contemporary subject at a time when all Paris was clamouring for historical spectacle.
Based on a poem by Frédéric Mistral, a French writer of Occitan literature and lexicographer of the Provençal language, it tells a tale of true love thwarted set-in rural France. Gounod immersed himself in the music and customs of the region in order to incorporate its moods and music – including, of course, the famous farandole – into his score. The premiere was not successful, and the work went on to have a checkered history with the composer adapting it as three and four-act versions plus a certain amount of tinkering with the heroine’s vocal part along the way.
This 2009 production for the Palais Garnier restored Mireille to its original state and justified the composer’s first thoughts as entirely correct. It has appeared previously on the magnificently curated but, it seems, now sadly defunct fRA label. Its reappearance on Naxos is therefore to be roundly applauded.
Mireille, daughter of the wealthy Maître Ramon, has set her heart on Vincent, a poor basket-weaver. In order to rid himself of a rival for Mireille’s hand, the bull-tender Ourrias assaults Vincent and leaves him for dead. When she subsequently learns that her lover lives, Mireille sets off across the scorching Crau dessert to meet him as pre-arranged at the church of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Arriving exhausted, she collapses in his arms and is rather melodramatically taken up to heaven. The plot includes other supernatural elements – there are curses, a local witch, and Ourrias is drowned as punishment by a ghostly ferryman – but otherwise it’s a touchingly real affair, neatly captured in Nicolas Joel’s naturalistic, if occasionally artful staging, with ravishing sets by Ezio Frigerio and gorgeous period costumes by Franca Squarciapino.
Inva Mula makes a perfect Mireille. Fresh as a daisy, her essentially lyrical voice copes admirably with a sometimes taxing role and she’s a most believable actor. A youthful Charles Castronovo is equally faultless as Vincent, his tone and manner ardent and touching. The rest of the cast has not a weak link with Franck Ferrari a swaggering Ourrias, Alain Vernhes a blustering Maitre Ramon, and Sylvie Brunet suitably earthy as the mysterious Taven. Marc Minkowski conducts the Opéra National de Paris orchestra and chorus with elegance and flair.
François Roussillon directs it splendidly here for video and the sound is excellent. Tuneful and engaging, if you only know Gounod through the bombast of Faust, Mireille will be as welcome as a drop of Provençal sunshine.
Performers: Inva Mula, Charles Castronovo, Opéra National de Paris, Marc Minkowski
Label: Naxos 2110683-84 (2DVD)