***** WhatsOnStage.com Richard Russell
Gounodís pastoral opera of 1864, Mireille, once a long-standing favourite work of the
Parisian Opera-Comique, has not received a staging in this country since 1983, when
English National Opera mounted it for their ďFrenchĒ soprano du jour, Valerie Masterson. I
recall that production for its quaint gallic charm and Mastersonís lyrically poised singing,
but little else.
So it is a delight to re-encounter the work courtesy of the enterprising New Sussex Opera
in the jewel of a theatre that is Eastbourneís Devonshire Park. In recent years NSO have
unearthed some real rarities for audiences in the South East.
Hearing the score again after a lengthy interim proves a real treat, and there are a
succession of first-class scenes and arias for the heroine, ranging from a beautiful aria in
which she envisages her dead mother forgiving her when her father rejects her for
spurning a wealthy and prosperous suitor, to a wonderfully uplifting scene of
determination as she struggles on her pilgrimage journey through the Crau desert to the
Church of Saintes-Maries, where she hopes to be reunited with her true love, the
impoverished Vincent, considered an ill-match by her father and wounded and left for
dead by the jealous suitor, Ourrias.
New Sussex Opera are indeed blessed to have at their disposal the services of South
African soprano Sally Silver, who brings shimmering tone and gleaming opulence to the
role of Mireille, worthy of any international house. The pure radiance of her singing never
occludes excellent delivery of text, and she creates a most touchingly vulnerable
character, beautifully acted throughout. Faultless coloratura is proof of her suitability to
the bel canto repertoire, and Scottish Opera have already showcased her as Donizettiís
Lucia di Lammermoor and Belliniís Elvira in I Puritani. It is surely only a matter of time
before the major houses come calling.
Mireille is rarely absent from the proceedings, but even when she is not the centre of
attention, there is no drop in temperature in this outstanding performance. An
indisposition led to the American tenor Michael Scott walking his role of Vincent onstage,
but no-one should feel short-changed at hearing that first-rate tenor Mark Milhofer
singing the role at forty-eight hours notice from the side of the stage. His beautifully-
placed high tenor proves absolutely perfect for the French repertoire. Again,
extraordinary quality one has no right to expect from a modest-sized company.
Sarah Pring also makes an excellent impression as the witch/fortune-teller Taven, who
rises to deliver a spine-chilling Kundry-like curse on Ourrias, sung with plenty of swagger
and bravado by Quentin Hayes. Perhaps the role of Mireilleís father, Ramon, lies
uncomfortably low for Robert Presley, but the many smaller roles are all admirably filled
from the ranks of the NSO Chorus, who all acquit themselves superbly.
Much of the credit must go to the excellent musical direction of Nicholas Jenkins, who
straightway establishes excellent harmony between stage and a very cramped pit. The
thirty-four piece orchestra overspill rather charmingly into the side-boxes - terrific brass -
creating a gloriously homogenised aural treat.
Tony Bakerís essentially minimal production is most effective in the final scene where
Mireille, Marguerite-like, ascends the heavens at the call of celestial voices, having finally
succumbed to sunstroke. Itís a great shame that this production will not be seen by more
people during its modest run of three performances. Urgently recommended.
Lewes Classical Paul Austin Kelly
Those of us fortunate enough to have heard last nightís semi-staged performance of
Gounodís opera Mireille by New Sussex Opera at Lewes Town Hall were treated to some
world-class singing by South African soprano Sally Silver. The role of Mireille should
have a sign hung on it--Please donít try this at home! The soprano is rarely off stage
and when sheís on, sheís singing. There are few places to rest, and yet Silver sang the
5-act tour de force seemingly without breaking a sweat. No easy feat. Her voice suited
the role beautifully and her training and seamless legato line was always in evidence.
With a beautiful, resonant middle voice and powerful open-throated top notes she was a
joy to hear throughout.
The second star of the show was clearly the orchestra. Nicholas Jenkins conducted
with great enthusiasm and precision and the St. Paulís Sinfonia played with
wonderful warm musicality. The wide variety of tonal colours and evocative dance
rhythms juxtaposed with the ethereal religious aspects of the music were all splendidly
displayed. I would happily become a frequent audience member of their concerts.
As for the rest of the cast, Quentin HayesĎ Ourrias was beautifully sung and dramatically
very committed. Hayes also has a real knowledge of how to sing long legato lines. This
is especially fortunate in a role which, given the anger and frustration of the character
and the thickness of orchestration, could easily have devolved into barking and shouting.
With Hayes it never did.
Sarah Pringís Taven, the medium, was also well sung. Pring has the necessary vocal
weight to sing the role but was still able to retain beauty of voice. She was also
dramatically interesting to watch.
The New Sussex Opera Chorus was in fine form, singing sweet and strong with good
intonation and clear diction. They were lively onstage and dramatically solid, clearly well-
rehearsed and they turned in a fine performance.
Tony Baker and his team should be commended for taking a bunch of tables and chairs
and a few spotlights and, on a shoe-string budget, creating the illusion (if one could
suspend disbelief) of Provence complete with ocean, boats, church and desert. The
staging was also clear and unfussy. Bravo!
Opera Magazine January 2012
Gounodís opera, based on a poem by Frederic Mistral and with a libretto by Michel Carre.
had an uncertain start in 1864 at the Theatre-Lyrique in Paris, its prima donna (who was
also the wife of the theatre director) ill at ease with the demands of the title role. From
then on, neither the addition of a virtuoso number for the soprano, nor the reduction of
five taxing acts to three, and even less the transformation of the ending from tragic to
happy, did more than brutalize a score the musical and dramatic content of which
received its due only when it was restored to its original form in 1939 for a staging at the
This was the version directed by Tony Baker for New Sussex Opera, which, in spite of the
restrictions of Cadogan Hall preventing any evocation of the ProvenÁal landscape,
captured the tensions of a tightly-knit rural community bound by its superstitions, the
peasant women dressed in the long black skirts and white shawls of the region, and their
severely black-suited and hatted menfolk as the rigid guardians of the traditional lifestyle.
The action was set on the extended forestage, which allowed room for chorus dancing
and a religious procession, and the orchestra was placed behind the singers, with the
conductor Nicholas Jenkins exercising taut control over the considerable numbers involved
and revealing the many musical strengths of Gounodís neglected score.
The role that had overstretched the first Mireille, Marie Miolan-Carvalho, held no terrors
for the South African soprano Sally Silver, her joyous insouciant solos in the early scenes
capped by secure top notes, and the words of Hugh Macdonaldís English translation
keenly projected. She and the tenor Michael Scott, the latter rendered voiceless by a
vocal infection miming the role of Vincent, conveyed the loversí ardour, while Mark
Milhofer, dressed in black and almost invisible against a black screen, projected the tenor
role from the side of the stage, infusing it with a wealth of expression. Their ringing duets
were musical high points. As the wise woman Taven, finely sung and strongly
characterized by Sarah Pring foretells, storm clouds gather literally and metaphorically
when the bull-tender Ourrias (a heavyweight portrayal by Quentin Hayes) is rejected by
Mireille, to the rage of her domineering father Ramon (Robert Presley). Ourrias's
murderous attack on Vincent precipitates the final tragedy when Mireille undertakes the
scorching desert pilgrimage to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, sacrificing her own life to secure
his recovery, her soul summoned to paradise by a celestial voice in one of the score's
several echoes of the composer's earlier Faust.
**** The Telegraph Rupert Christiansen
Like some fresh sweet rosť which turns astringent once it leaves its native soil, Gounodís
Mireille doesnít travel well. With its ProvenÁal setting and pseudo-folk songs and dances,
itís much loved in France, but everyone else looks down their noses at its sentimental
religiosity, and I donít think itís been performed in Britain since ENO revived it for Valerie
Masterson in 1983.
Yet I find it a very charming work, for which I have an unashamed soft spot. Written
after Faust, itís set among Jean de Florette folk, focused on a credulous maiden and her
basket-weaver lover. Soaked in Gounodís most suavely melodic style, the score is warm
of heart and rich in colour: Bizet must have had some of its tricks in mind when he was
New Sussex Opera presented it in Hugh Macdonaldís translation, framed by a simple and
serviceable if overly dark staging directed by Tony Baker. The amateur chorus enjoyed
itself enormously and the orchestra played with terrific gusto under the enthusiastic
baton of Nicholas Jenkins. There were some perfectly decent performances in small roles,
and Mark Milhofer, singing at short notice from the side of the stage while the indisposed
Michael Scott mutely acted the part, was impressively robust and impassioned as Mireilleís
But what lifted the evening to another plane and earns it a fourth star was the
remarkable performance by South African soprano Sally Silver in the title role. I have
always thought she was good - I admired her last year in the wildly different idioms of
Handelís Orlando and Turnageís Greek - but I hadnít realised quite how good. With
effortlessly pure tuning, bright and fluently produced tone, a full and easy top register,
warmly musical phrasing and clean enunciation of the text, she offered first-class
singing by any standards.
Mireille is a long and demanding role - I seem to remember that even Masterson struggled
with it - but Silver sounded as convincing at the end of a long evening as she did at the
I can only add that on this showing, she is distinctly superior in vocal artistry to several
expensively imported ladies with inflated reputations I have heard recently at Covent
Garden. If I was casting director for one of our major opera companies, Iíd be putting
Sally Silver on my A-list.
NSO's Mireille was listed as one of the operatic "hits of the year" in The Telegraph's
review of 2011.
Planet Hugill Robert Hugill
Goodness knows what Gounod was thinking when he wrote the title role of his opera
Mireille, given that it was to be premiered at the Teatre-Lyrique in Paris. The director of
the theatre was Leon Carvalho and his wife, Marie Caroline Miolan-Carvalho was one of
the most famous sopranos of her day and created both Juliette and Marguerite for
Gounod. She was a lyric coloratura and Juliette was her ideal role.
The title role of Mireille starts as a straightforward lyric role, but by the time we get to
Act 4, when Mireille is struggling across the Crau in burning heat, Gounod takes the role
into dramatic territory; add to this the fact that the soprano is on stage for a significant
amount of the opera and you get a problem. Madame Miolan-Carvalho's solution was to
get the opera re-written. 5 acts down to 3, gloomy bits out, happy ending in and a
delightful valse-ariette added for the soprano.
Luckily for us, in the 1930's Reynaldo Hahn and a pupil of Gounod's, Henri Busser, restored
the score to its original 5-act version (gloomy bits in, valse-ariette out) and it was this
version which New Sussex Opera brought to London's Cadogan Hall on Tuesday 8th. The
production, designed and directed by Tony Baker and conducted by Nicholas Jenkins, had
already been seen in Lewes and Eastbourne. The group is based in Brighton, Lewes and
Eastbourne and aims to produce high-quality performances involving both professional and
amateurs. Their choice of repertoire is usually enterprising and previous productions have
included Offenbach's Die Rheinnixen and Vaughan Williams's Hugh the Drover, future
productions include Puccini's Edgar and Wagner's Die Feen.
Inevitably Baker's production was simple and straightforward, after all the Cadogan Hall
has no facilities for scenery, no wings and no backstage. Baker's solution was highly
imaginative and involved the use of simple table and chairs to create all sorts of milieu,
helped by Karle Oskar Sordal's lighting.
The plot, which is based on a poem by the Provencal poet Frederic Mistral, involves
Mireille (Sally Silver) who is in love with a poor basket-weaver far below her in the social
scale. The basket weaver, Vincent, was supposed to be played by Michael Scott, but he
had lost his voice so he acted the role and Mark Milhofer sang it from the side of the
stage. Gounod's opening acts are mainly scenic, with lots of characterful chorus action
and a little bit of plot advancement. As part of the celebrations in Arles in Act 2 we get a
Farandole, the dance for which Provence is famous. It is only at the end of this act that
the real drama happens. Mireille is approached by Ourrias (Quentin Hayes), who is her
father's choice for her husband but she refuses him. Mireille's father Ramon (Robert
Presley) forbids her to marry Vincent and curses both Vincent, his father Ambroise (Paul
Waite) and his sister Vincenette (Hilary Jane Andrews).
Vincent and Ourrias fight a duel and Vincent is injured. Ourrias thinks he has killed
Vincent, goes mad and commits suicide. Vincent is saved by Taven (Sarah Pring) a witch
who supports Mireille and crops up periodically offering support and doom sayings. Luckily
Pring played down the mad witch element and made her more of a sensible, wise-woman.
Mireille decides to go on pilgrimage to the church of Saintes-Maries and become
exhausted and disorientated when crossing the Crau at mid-day. She and Vincent are re-
united at Saintes-Maries but as pilgrim's process Mireille dies and is ushered to heaven by
the ghost of her mother.
The opera is regarded by many as one of Gounod's masterpieces and certainly he provides
some strongly dramatic situations and some profoundly affecting writing. Jenkins, Baker
and their forces gave the work with tremendous commitment and no little flair so
that by the end of the evening you wondered why it didn't crop up in operatic life more
As far as I know London has seen the work staged twice in living memory, both times at
ENO; first for Valerie Masterson and later during their re-building season. Neither run
seems to have generated a run of performances in other areas. One of the problems is
undoubtedly the title role, requiring some coloratura skill, stamina, dramatic force, plus
the ability to convince as a young girl. Effectively Gounod has written a role which,
dramatically, starts out as Micaela and finishes as Carmen.
Luckily in Sally Silver, NSO had a soprano completely equal to the role. Silver's bright
tones and beautifully focused lyric tones created an attractive picture of a lively young
woman in the first 2 acts, granted her fioriture were perhaps a bit too dramatic, but the
results were all of a piece and charmed. Then in her big Act 4 solo scene, she developed
superbly and showed herself fully equal to the dramatic demands, giving a moving and
vividly engaging performance; she even managed to die nicely. The role requires no little
stamina and in length is by far the biggest role in the opera. Silver seemed completely
unphased by its demands and preserved her tone until the very end. This was a total
triumph and I certainly hope the this stunning performance brings its rewards; and
I hope that someone else mounts a production of the opera for her.
Michael Scott made a visually convincing young basket weaver, this was a production
where you did not need to excuse the age of the principals. He and Silver made a
charming pairing and it was a shame that we could not hear him as well. But Mark Milhofer
sang the role as if he'd been doing it all his life, bringing a nice flexibility to the line and
duetting charmingly with Silver. Vincent is one of those roles where the singer interacts
with others rather than getting a big solo scene of his own, but Milhofer and Scott
created an effective and believable character both musically and dramatically.
Quentin Hayes was also announced as suffering a cold so this perhaps explains a little
which his performance, though musical, lacked a little in vividness. This also might have
been Gounod's fault; Ourrias's big solo when he announces his interest in her is obviously
intended to swagger in the way that Bizet's music for the toreador does in Carmen
(Ourrias is after all a bull-tender), but it didn't do so quite here, despite some effective
pleading from Hayes, Jenkins and the orchestra. Given the limitations of the stage, the
fight scene between Hayes and Scott/Milhofer worked rather well and did fair crackle with
a vivid energy.
I thought that Robert Presley as Ramon was a little too avuncularly sympathetic; this
worked in the later scenes when he regrets his actions, but in the crucial Act 2 cursing of
Vincent and his family, Presley seemed to lack the vicious edge which the role requires.
Paul Waite as Vincent's father was effective in what is a rather underwritten role. Sarah
Pring successfully trod a fine line as Taven, never quite going off into dotty witch mode
but convincing us of the character's stubborn otherness.
The remaining soloists were provided by members of the NSO ensemble with Hilary Jane
Andrewes as Vincenette, Red Gray as Clemence, Thalie Knights as a Shepherdess, Rachel
Shouksmith as the ghost of Mireille's mother, Tim Lock as the Ferryman, Richard Fisher as
Echo, John Cobb as a man from Arles, Fiona Baines as Azalais, Anastasia Witts as Norade
and Marie Goulding as Violane. All gave creditable performances but the stand-out one
was Hilary Jane Andrews whose duet with Mireille in Act 4 was one of the works subtle
Despite the relatively constricted acting area, Baker and his choreographer Caroline Pope,
managed some convincing ensemble dancing for the farandole, even involving a childrens
chorus! (The project also included workshops in Sussex schools relating to Mireille).
Nicholas Jenkins and the St. Paul's Sinfonia did full justice to Gounod's score, Jenkins
coaxing some nicely flexible playing from the 34 strong ensemble. It is to their credit that
the relatively small string forces never seemed to tell against them and in the resonant
Cadogan Hall acoustics they came across as vibrant and effective.
The chorus were immensely hard-working, appearing in a high proportion of the scenes
and acting as scene shifters in all the others. The enthusiasm and commitment were
palpable and it is a delight to be able to record that all their undoubted hard work paid off
in a polished and highly convincing performance; only in the final choruses did
Gounod's tricky choral writing threaten to disturb things but even this was a mere blip and
what was a fine performance.
I'm not quite convinced that Gounod's opera is a complete masterpiece, but it certainly
warrants hearing more often than it is and I definitely think it a great improvement on
Romeo et Juliette. Certainly the first two acts are rather leisurely, rather too interested in
local colour (Gounod wrote a lot of the opera whilst staying in Provence), but once the
drama gets going it certainly picks up. Reading about the re-construction work that
Busser did on the score, it seems that the original run may have used some spoken
dialogue and I did wonder whether this might have helped to keep things moving in the
first 2 acts.
But, all the way through I kept on thinking, what would Bizet have made of this, the
drama would have seemed ideal for him. Whilst Gounod has come up with a charming,
well-made score which rises to the dramatic occasion, you can't help feeling that Bizet
might have produced a rather more arresting work. Still, it is all credit to New Sussex
Opera that they have given us the opportunity to re-evaluate Mireille and done so in such
a highly effective and stunning manner.