About this work
Frédéric Mistral's epic poem Mirèio appeared in 1859 and soon became known in Parisian literary circles. Gounod and the librettist, Michel Carré, began work on the operatic setting early in 1863, reworking both minutiae and fundamental aspects of Mistral's poem. The premiere of Mireille on March 14, 1864, at the Théâtre Lyrique was a failure. Only after numerous excisions, additions, and other emendations, did the opera finally achieve success, in 1889 at the Opéra-Comique. Most of the changes after the premiere focused on Carré's libretto, although the original Acts III, IV, and V were compressed into one, with a new duet for Mireille and Vincent at the end, which is happy. Ironically, since the great success of 1889, subsequent productions have attempted to return to the original version, which is the most frequently recorded.
As if to make up for elimination of Mistral's numerous narrative and scenic references to Provence (such as detailed descriptions of olive farming), Gounod included many references to Provençal music. In the first scene of Act II, a group outside the Arles arena dance a farandole, a chain dance in 6/8 meter in which the participants either clasp hands or hold on to handkerchiefs to create a line. Also, cornemuse tunes and the musette appear in Gounod's score. The love song between Vincent and Mireille at the beginning of Act II, "Chanson de Magali," is in both 6/8 and 9/8 meter and contains other pastoral characteristics.
Other musical highlights of Mireille concern the delineation of the characters. Early in Act I, as Clémence imagines a handsome prince will take her away from Provence to live in a beautiful castle the music is lively and exuberant. When Mireille tells that she would be satisfied with anyone who really loves her, the music becomes simpler, with straightforward text setting and an accompaniment that follows the melody, giving a glimpse into Mireille's honest humanity. Later in the same act, as Vincent waxes poetic about how attractive he finds Mireille, the music moves to a duskier key and increases in melodic intensity, conveying the depth of his passion. Mireille's admiration of her long dead mother becomes clear late in Act II when she begs her father to let her be with Vincent: when she mentions her mother, the aria's minor mode shifts to major. The resolve of the two lovers to be together is clear when they tell their intentions to Mireille's father, singing in unison.