About this work
The dismal failure of Ambroise Thomas' Le roma d'Elvire in 1860, combined with the success of Gounod's Faust the year before, prompted Thomas to quit composing opera for the next six years. However, when Jules Barbier and Michel Carré -- the librettists for Gounod's masterpiece, and the future authors of Thomas' Hamlet (1868) -- approached Thomas with the Mignon story, they found the composer eager to eclipse his rival's earlier triumph. Barbier and Carré based the libretto on Goethe's Wilhelm Meister Lehrjahre.
Predictably, Thomas imitated aspects of Gounod's style in his new work, and he further insured success by delaying the premiere until the management of the Opéra-Comique could assemble a strong cast. With this accomplished, Mignon was first performed on November 17, 1866. It was an immediate success, and was performed 100 times at the Opéra-Comique in the eight months after the premiere. In 1870, it was given in London and in 1871 it was staged in New York.
Barbier and Carré made fundamental changes to the character of Mignon as drawn by Goethe. In the novel, she is not the main character, but by extracting her trials and tribulations from the context of the work as a whole, Barbier and Carré made Mignon the focal point of the opera. Furthermore, the librettists created a happy ending (Mignon lives, whereas she dies in the novel), obligatory for works written for the Opéra-Comique stage at the time. Nevertheless, Barbier and Carré manage to maintain the spirit of Goethe's story.
Thomas was eager to please, and made adjustments to his score when necessary. For the London performance, the composer replaced the spoken dialogue with recitatives and adapted the role of Frédéric for a contralto, composing the famous Act II rondo-gavotte, "In veder l'amata stanza," based on material from the preceding entr'acte. Philine also received a new aria: "Alerta, Filina." Furthermore, the work was sung in Italian. For German stages, Thomas was willing to completely change the end of the work, having Mignon die in Wilhelm's arms when she hears Philine's voice from offstage. Undoubtedly, this made the opera more palatable to German audiences, who knew and identified with Goethe's masterpiece.
Thomas' eclecticism proved a hindrance to his success in his early years. Composing in various styles with numerous, and obvious, models (Auber, Hérold, Rossini), Thomas did not find his own voice until Le caïd of 1849, which still owes much to Rossini. It was not until Mignon that the aspects of Thomas' eclectic musical personality coalesced to create an impressively unified work.
Mignon draws its strength from Thomas' careful musical representation of the characters. Mignon's music alternately illustrates her jealousy, love, and affection in no uncertain terms. Her complexity is unmatched in any other of Thomas' operas. Philine's superficial personality comes across in her predictable music, especially the polonaise aria, "Je suis Titania." Wilhelm's youthful but sensible character comes through in vivacious, yet studied music, especially in the first part of Act II, in which we hear clearly the contrast between his music and that for Frédéric and the uncontrollably jealous Mignon. Wilhelm's sincerity comes to the fore near the end of the second act, when he greets Mignon after their earlier confrontation. Lothario's amnesia becomes apparent not only through his change of clothes and description of his past in the final act, but also through his music, which takes on a more noble character when his memory returns.