A Woman of Mystery: Ambroise Thomas's 'Mignon'

WOO-1231-Mignon-300-4The opera has three acts, and the action begins at an inn, near a small town in Germany. People have gathered at the inn's courtyard for some entertainment: songs by the aging minstrel Lothario, and the dancing of a group of gypsies. The audience includes the vivacious young woman Philine, and her companion Laerte, who belong to a troupe of traveling actors.

Jarno, the chief of the gypsies, grows angry when Mignon, one of his dancers, refuses to perform. When he threatens to beat her, the old minstrel Lothario comes to her rescue, along with the young man Wilhelm Meister, a traveling student.

Mignon thanks them, and in gratitude gives the two men a bunch of wildflowers she has gathered. Seeing this, the actor Laerte takes the flowers and gives them to Philine. Wilhelm has no objection; he's been struck by Philine's beauty.

But for now, Wilhelm is still worried about Mignon. While questioning her, he learns that she's not sure where she comes from. All she remembers is living in a warm and sunny place as a child. She was taken from her parents when she was very small, and wound up with the gypsies. Wilhelm decides to buy Mignon's freedom, and negotiates a price with the gypsy chief Jarno.

WOO-1231-Mignon-300-3Lothario says he's about to travel south, and invites Mignon to come along. But she's begun to fall in love with Wilhelm, and prefers to stay with him. And she's not the only one with her eye on Wilhelm. Philine is also falling for the handsome young student, despite the desperate attention of her young admirer Frédéric.

Laerte announces that his theater troupe has received an invitation from the Baron Rosenberg to perform at his castle. So as the act ends, everyone heads off in that direction. Mignon is pleased to be staying with Wilhelm -- but she's also upset when she sees that the wildflowers she gave him are now in the hands of Philine.

ACT TWO takes place at the Rosenberg castle. Philine, the star of the troupe, has been given a private boudoir in the castle, and that's where the act begins. Wilhelm Meister and Mignon are also at the castle. The two enter Philine's rooms, and Mignon pretends to sleep, while Wilhelm and Philine sing a playful duet.

Afterward, Mignon stays in the room alone. She's jealous of Philine, and tries on one of her costumes. Then she sits down at Philine's dressing table, and uses her makeup.

WOO-1231-Mignon-300-2The young man Frédéric enters, followed by Wilhelm. Both men are in love with Philine. They begin arguing, and Wilhelm has drawn his sword when Mignon steps between them. Frédéric realizes that Mignon is wearing Philine's clothes, and laughs at her. Wilhelm doesn't realize how Mignon feels about him, and seems to think she's losing her grip. He tells her they can't stay together, and says it would be best if she went off on her own.

When Philine returns, she takes one look at Mignon wearing her dress, and knows exactly what's going on. Mockingly, she says Mignon is obviously envious. Wilhelm doesn't believe it. He goes off, arm in arm with Philine, leaving Mignon in a jealous rage.

The next scene takes place outside, on the castle grounds. Mignon is despondent, and decides to throw herself into the lake. Then she hears gentle music. It's the old minstrel Lothario, who has also been following the acting troupe. He tries to comfort Mignon.

Then applause is heard from inside the castle, where the actors are performing Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, with Philine as Titania. As the crowd claps and cheers for Philine, Mignon angrily says she wishes the castle would be struck by lightning, and burn to the ground. Lothario hears her, and walks toward the castle, muttering about "fire."

Philine then comes out, surrounded by the adoring crowd, and accompanied by Wilhelm. When he approaches Mignon, Philine gets rid of her by asking Mignon to go into the castle and fetch a bouquet that was given to Wilhelm. Then, while Mignon is gone, the actor Laerte rushes in, saying the castle is burning. Lothario has set the building ablaze, fulfilling Mignon's jealous rant.

As the act ends, Wilhelm rushes into the flames, and emerges carrying Mignon. She's injured and unconscious -- and clutching a bouquet of smoldering flowers.

As ACT THREE begins, Wilhelm has brought Mignon to Italy, where it's warm, to recuperate, along with the aging minstrel Lothario. As they relax in the sun, the servant Antonio tells them all about the history of the old castle where they've taken refuge, and about the family who used to live there. Their young daughter disappeared, and was thought to have drowned. The mother then died of grief, and the father went mad. He fled into exile, and no one has seen him since. Wilhelm also learns that the castle is for sale at a bargain price. Mignon seems to be happy there, and is quickly recovering from her injuries. So Wilhelm decides to buy it for her. He also realizes that he has fallen in deeply in love with Mignon.

WOO-1231-Mignon-300A sign on the castle says it once belonged to the family Cipriani. Wilhelm reads the sign aloud, and when Lothario hears the name, Cipriani, he begins acting strangely, and wanders into the castle through a nearby door.

Mignon has been sleeping, and when she wakes up, she has regained even more of her strength. She looks around her, saying the castle feels comfortable, and oddly familiar. Then she's nearly overwhelmed by joy and relief when Wilhelm confesses that he loves her.

Lothario reappears. He's richly dressed, apparently wearing clothes from inside the castle. He's also carrying a small box, filled with mementos, which Mignon immediately seems to recognize.

Seeing the castle has reawakened Lothario's memory. He's actually the Marquis Cipriani -- the castle's old owner. Mignon takes a prayer book from the box, and begins to read from it. Then she realizes that she knows the prayer by heart. The book was hers, when she was small. Her real name is Sperata -- she's Lothario's long-lost daughter.

Wilhelm and Mignon are both overjoyed, and Lothario welcomes them to their new home as the opera ends.