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Passion In Provence: Gounod's 'Mireille'

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.