If, like me, you are looking at 'Mireille' for the first time, then don't be afraid to invest your money - this budget-priced reissue is worth every penny. In fact, in this series of reissues, EMI is giving every opera lover the chance to venture into less well-known fields and discover what they have been missing.
From the scintillating Overture through to the finale of Act Five, 'Mireille' is full of engaging melodies. I had only previously heard the tenor aria from the last act `Anges du paradis', which appears on albums by Alagna and Villazon, but there are many other delightful tunes, not least a lively song for Taven, the witchlike gipsy, sung with verve by mezzo Jane Rhodes, which may well have served as inspiration for several of Sullivan's similar characters.
This version is generously cast, with Gabriel Bacquier as Mireille's father, reliable as always, and Alain Vanzo turning in another of his affecting performances as Vincent, Mireille's poverty-stricken sweetheart. His is an `open' voice, clear and always pleasant to the ear. In the role of Ourrias, the villain of the piece, José van Dam sings with exquisite beauty of tone, giving the villain a nobility which makes his remorse much more credible. This is one of the most beautiful bass-baritone voices of the twentieth century recorded at its very best.
Any performance of 'Mireille', however, stand or falls on the successful portrayal of the title character, and Mirella Freni tackles this demanding role with absolute assurance. The delightful duo with Vanzo in Act One, the more unusual but very effective duet with another soprano (Christine Barbaux) in Act Four, and, above all, the two big arias from Acts Two and Four all display her mastery of the material. She sings with great vitality and emotional commitment, managing to convey innocence, devotion, determination and despair with equal success. Her French sounds good to me - I found no difficulty in following her words without the libretto - though, of course, not quite up to the standard of the native French speakers.
The Orchestra and Choirs of the Capitole de Toulouse are extremely competent and are well directed by Michel Plasson, who has an excellent instinct for when to drive on and when to take his time.
One brief note on the format: in this series of reissues, the libretto and any introduction to or notes on the opera are provided not in a booklet but in pdf format on an additional disc. Those younger than I will probably find this arrangement perfectly acceptable, but I prefer to sit in an armchair with the libretto in my hand while listening rather than looking at a screen - a very small quibble on an otherwise very satisfying purchase.
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