New Sussex Opera at the Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne.
Gounod’s 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 “French” soprano du jour, Valerie Masterson. I recall that production for its quaint gallic charm and Masterson’s 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 Eastbourne’s 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 Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Bellini’s 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 Mireille’s 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 Baker’s 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. It’s a great shame that this production will not be seen by more people during its modest run of three performances. Urgently recommended.
- Richard Russell