Passion In Provence: Gounod's 'Mireille'

Baritone Alain Verhnes and soprano Inva Mula in Gounod's "Mireille." i i

Ramon (baritone Alain Verhnes) is unhappy that his daughter Mireille (soprano Inva Mula) has fallen in love with a man beneath their social status. Agathe Poupeney/Opéra National de Paris hide caption

itoggle caption Agathe Poupeney/Opéra National de Paris
Baritone Alain Verhnes and soprano Inva Mula in Gounod's "Mireille."

Ramon (baritone Alain Verhnes) is unhappy that his daughter Mireille (soprano Inva Mula) has fallen in love with a man beneath their social status.

Agathe Poupeney/Opéra National de Paris

THE HIT SINGLE

In Act Two, Mireille and Vincent (soprano Inva Mula and tenor Charles Castronovo) sing the "Song of Magali," a love song inspired by Provencal folklore.

THE B SIDE

In the fourth act, as Mireille crosses the desert to the shrine of Saintes-Marie, she sings the stirring aria "En marche," which some critics at the opera's 1864, Paris premiere thought was far too heroic for a simple, country girl from Provence.

For centuries, opera composers of all stripes have drawn big audiences with dramas that exploit "exotic" settings and cultures. Verdi's Aida, set in Egypt, and Puccini's Turandot, set in ancient Peking, are two familiar examples from Italian composers. Several great French opera composers used the same ploy — including Charles Gounod with his seldom-heard drama Mireille.

As far back as the 1730's, Jean-Phillipe Rameau wowed audiences in Paris with an opera called Les Indes Galantes, which begins on an island in the Indian Ocean, and later depicts an Inca city in Peru and a festival in Persia. Bizet took audiences to Ceylon in The Pearl Fishers and vividly evoked the Romani, or gypsy culture of Spain in his wildly popular Carmen.

Compared with those operas, Gounod's Mireille may seem strictly home grown — at least to modern listeners. But audiences at its Paris premiere, in 1864, heard something else altogether.

Gounod's opera is based on an epic poem by Frederic Mistral, often identified today as a "French poet." But Mistral saw himself a bit differently. He was from Provence, and when his epic Mireio was published in 1859, it was printed in the Provencal language, with a French translation on the opposite page.

Today, many may regard Provence simply as a possible side trip on that dream vacation to Paris — or for Parisians, as a pleasant, weekend escape from the big city. But to high-society city dwellers in the 1860s, both Mistral's poem and Gounod's opera depicted a world apart.

The opera's title character is an innocent young woman who falls for a man her family considers below their station, with tragic results. That itself seemed exotic to many in 19th-century Paris; they were surprised to see a tale of violent, class conflict played out among entirely among simple peasant folk of the south. And Mireille herself was just as surprising. Paris critics felt that her bold aria "En marche" was far too heroic to be plausible, coming from a "mere" country girl.

And Gounod's music? Listen carefully, and you may find that Bizet's exotic, gypsy-inspired Carmen, which appeared about ten years after Mireille, owes more than a little to the earlier opera's distinct, Mediterranean flair.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Gounod's Mireille in a production by the Paris National Opera, presented at the Palais Garnier. The stars are soprano Inva Mula in the title role, with tenor Charles Castronovo as Mireille's true love, Vincent.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story of 'Mireille'

Mireille scene

Mireille (soprano Inva Mula) and her forbidden love, Vincent (tenor Charles Castronovo), pray for help at the chapel of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Paris Opera production of Gounod's Mireille. Agathe Poupeney/Opera national de Paris hide caption

itoggle caption Agathe Poupeney/Opera national de Paris

WHO'S WHO

Inva Mula ......................... Mireille
Charles Castronovo ....... Vincent
Franck Ferrari ................. Ourrias
Alain Verhnes ................. Ramon
Silvie Brunet .................... Taven
Anne-Catherine Gillet ...... Vincenette
Nicolas Cavallier ............. Ambroise
Ugo Rabec ...................... Ferryman

Paris National Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Marc Minkowski, conductor

Gounod's five-act opera is based on an epic by the poet Frederic Mistral, a champion of the language and culture of Provence, who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1904.

As ACT ONE begins, an eccentric woman named Taven — a kind of "good witch" — is observing a group of girls, including Mireille, gathering mulberry leaves in an orchard. They're all eager to experience true love, but Taven warns that for some of them, love will turn out to be painful. One young woman says that won't happen to her — she'll fall in love with a prince and live in a luxurious castle. Mireille says she'd be satisfied with any man who loved her completely and sincerely.

When everyone else leaves, Mireille tells Taven that she truly is in love with a young man called Vincent. Taven sees a problem. By local standards, Mireille's family is fairly well off, while Vincent's family is not. He's below her station.

But when the two find themselves alone together, that hardly seems a problem. In a duet, Vincent tells Mireille how beautiful she is, and as the act ends they make a mutual promise: If either gets into trouble, they'll make a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saintes-Maries to pray for help.

ACT TWO begins in the city of Arles, outside the ancient arena. Mireille and Vincent sing the "Chanson de Magali," a love song based on local Provencal folklore.

When they finish, Taven takes Mireille aside and gives her another warning: It's the time of year for courtship and she'll soon be approached by suitors. Before long, that's exactly what happens. A bull-tamer named Ourrias approaches Mireille, and declares his love. When she turns away from him, Mireille's father Ramon appears, and Ourrias complains about Mireille's coldness.

As the two men are talking, Vincent arrives with his own father, Ambroise. Ramon sternly advises Ambroise that a father must exercise absolute control over his children — implying that Vincent should be kept in his place, and away from Ramon's daughter.

Mireille objects, saying that she and Vincent are in love. Her father orders her to give Vincent up, and raises his hand to strike her. Mireille kneels in front of him and begs for his understanding. Ramon turns to Vincent and curses him, saying he'll never see Mireille again. Ambroise defies Ramon, and the two lovers say they'll never agree to be separated.

The first scene of ACT THREE opens outside the cave where Taven lives. Ourrias is there with some friends and tells them to go on without him. He's still furious about Mireille's rejection and decides to take his anger out on his rival, Vincent. When Vincent also turns up outside the cave, Ourrias accuses him of using witchcraft to win Mireille's love. Ourrias raises his trident and stabs Vincent, who cries out and falls to the ground. Hearing the noise, Taven emerges from her cave and curses Ourrias.

The next scene takes place on the banks of the Rhone, and Taven's curse seems to be working. Ourrias is overcome with guilt and fear. He calls a ferryman to take him to the other side of the river and sees phantoms emerging from the water. The ferry arrives, and Ourrias frantically leaps onboard. But as they're crossing, the water surges violently, the boat sinks, and Ourrias drowns.

For the opening scene of ACT FOUR, Mireille is at home at her farm. Ambroise celebrates the harvest with his farm hands, but Mireille is still unhappy at her separation from Vincent. She listens to a shepherd playing his pipes and envies his seemingly carefree life.

As she's pondering this, Vincent's sister Vincenette arrives — and tells Mireille about the attack on Vincent by Ourrias. She says Vincent is wounded, but alive. Mireille decides to honor the promise she made to Vincent when they first fell in love. She gathers her modest jewelry as an offering and vows to travel across the harsh La Crau desert to the shrine of Saintes-Maries, to pray for Vincent's life.

In the next scene, Mireille is alone on the desert, under a strong midday sun, nearly exhausted. Inspired by the vision of a gleaming city on a lake, she sings the heroic aria "En Marche." But the city turns out to be a mirage. Marie collapses in despair but again hears shepherd's pipes in the distance, and forces herself to go on.

ACT FIVE takes place outside the chapel at Saintes-Maries. Vincent has survived, and he's looking for Mireille — fulfilling his vow to meet her at the shrine. She stumbles in, delirious from heat stroke. Vincent rushes to her side, and at first she's ecstatic to see him. But the journey across the desert was too much for her. Mireille has a vision of the sky opening above her, and dies, as a celestial voice welcomes her to heaven.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.