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ClassicsOnline Home » CHARPENTIER, G.: Louise (Moore, Pinza, Beecham) (1943)
By Phil Anson
La Scena Musicale
Charpentier (1860 - 1956)
If Mascagni and
Leoncavallo (of "Cav and Pag" fame) are sometimes unfairly known as
one-work composers, no such unfairness could be claimed in the case of Gustave
Charpentier. While studying with Massenet in Paris he became enamoured of the Bohemian lifestyle of Montmartre and began to see himself as a rebel, railing against
society's strictures. He won the Prix de Rome in 1887 and began
composing Louise - which exemplified his philosophy precisely - at the
same time; it was not completed until 1898, when it was accepted by the Opera
Comique. It was presented there as the first opera of the new century, on 2nd February 1900, and was a resounding success. With its theme
of freedom and the liberation of women, in hand with its luscious, sometimes
post-Wagnerian score, it found a welcome place, and when Charpentier died in 1956
Louise was just short of its 1,000th performance at the Opera Comique.
referred to Louise as a "musical novel," perhaps to set it
apart from the type of operas which had held the stage for the previous 300
years. In his work there would be no royalty, no gods, no stilted dialogue, no deus
ex machina. In Louise we meet street-vendors, seamstresses,
rag-pickers, painters, poets, philosophers, and most importantly, four flesh-and-blood
characters Louise, a young girl in love with the Bohemian painter Julien, her
loving, hard-working father who tends to see things conventionally and is
afraid for Louise's future, and her suspicious, argumentative, controlling
mother. But in truth there is a fifth character - Paris. It is the allure and freedom that Paris represents which is so seductive to Louise and such anathema to her
parents; indeed, not only do Julien and Louise sing to Paris during their love duets, Paris is actually
heard at times, calling to Louise, inviting her to emancipation. Along the way
we come upon the hopes and aspirations of everyday people; there is no tidy
ending, no-one dies, there's no melodrama. Louise leaves her parents' home to
live what Julien believes early in the opera. Tout etre a le droit d'etre
libre (Every one has the right to be free). This is the 'credo' of Louise.
The composer Paul
Dukas said of Louise: "the first and last acts are those of a
master; the middle two are those of an artist, while the whole is the work of a
man." And indeed, the two outside acts, taking place as they do in the
most mundane circumstances (and most working-class of households) depict their
situations so superbly that we get the entire picture of Louise's life at home,
complete with her longing and impatience, her parents' small-minded thinking
and Julien's passion; while in the second and third acts we have the entire panoply
of Paris laid in front of us - the low and high lives, the sadnesses and joys,
and some street spectacle which has yet to be better exhibited in opera. The displays
of his craft are evidenced throughout, with influences from Wagner, in his use
of leitmotifs, and Berlioz's striking ways with orchestration, but
always with his own, special, soaring lyricism. There are few more rapturous
moments in all of opera than Louise's aria Depuis le jour and the almost
twenty-minute love duet which immediately follows. And yes, Charpentier remained
a man at all times, devoted to his socialist beliefs, wedded to Paris, and
probably telling us a story in Louise which was at least semi-autobiographical:
some time in 1885 he began a long affair with a seamstress in Montmartre, and
he sets the opera specifically between April and July of that year.
again achieved the acclaim he was awarded with Louise; an attempt at a
sequel, Julien, in 1913, was momentarily successful but was never revived.
He lived out his last fifteen years as a semi-recluse in the Paris which had so animated and inspired him to compose
his naturalistic masterwork, Louise.
takes place in Paris, in 'the present'.
Act I A room in a working class tenement of
Louise and her parents; through the large open window an artist's studio can be
seen. As the curtain rises, we hear Julien's voice - from his studio terrace he
is singing of Paris in the spring and l) is love for Louise.
She joins him and he tells her that he has written to her father asking for her
hand but if her parents do not allow them to marry, she must elope with him.
Louise says that she loves him, but she loves them too; when her mother enters
she shuts Louise in the kitchen and admonishes Julien through the window. The
mother makes fun of Louise's and Julien's words and calls Julien a drunk and a
debaucher. Louise and her mother argue; the other is about to hit Louise when
the father enters, tired from his day at work. He asks about dinner. He is
carrying a letter which he puts on the table without comment. Louise's mother
begins a conversation about lazy people and the father agrees, but it does not
carry the same bitterness - he and Louise are obviously fond of one-another.
Louise asks him
to look at the letter, which is from Julien, and the father praises Julien's
poise and does not seem set against their marriage. But the mother is furious,
and after some more harsh words, she slaps Louise. The father gently asks
Louise to read the paper to him, but when the subject turns to Paris in the spring, Louise is reduced to tears and leaves
the room as the curtain falls.
Act II A wide street in Montrnartre, 5:00am. Various street-people come and go, some cleaning, some setting up
stalls to sell their wares, some picking for rags. Eventually Julien and his
friends enter, looking for the seamstress's shop where Louise works. The street
vendors and workers come and go and Julien again sings of the glories of Paris. Louise and her suspicious mother arrive and when
Julien finally gets a chance to ask Louise about the reaction to his letter, he
argues with her, accusing her of being too attached to her parents and having
no sense of rebellion and adventure.
seamstress's shop, the girls work and sing. One of them notices that Louise has
been crying and suggests that she is in love. Louise is also accused of paying
too much attention to her mother Soon Julien's voice is heard from the street;
he is singing about love. This amuses the girls, but their reactions annoy
Louise, who takes her coat and leaves. The girls look out of the window and
spot Louise and Julien arm in arm. They laugh in approval.
Act III A
small garden on the side of Montmartre Louise sings to Julien about her love
for him and her happiness since they began to live together. In a duet they
sing of their mutual love, the joys of Paris and their rapture at being free. Bohemians, street people and friends
enter the garden and begin decorating, singing and dancing. Louise is crowned
Queen of Bohemia and Muse of Montrnartre. Suddenly her mother appears. She is
not interested in quarreling; rather, she tells Louise that her father is sick
and needs her to care for him. Hesitantly, as her mother promises Julien that
she can return whenever she pleases, Louise leaves.
Act IV The same as in the first act; Julien's
studio is no longer visible. Louise is still living with her parents, who have
broken their promise that she would be able to return to Julien. Her father is
better but he has lost much of his Warmth and is now relentlessly bitter, complaining
about the ingratitude of children. Louise easily picks up on his true meaning
and gazes longingly out of the window at Paris, whereupon her mother immediately
says that they win not consider allowing her to return to Julien. Her father
sings to her and treats her tenderly and for a moment we remember what a gentle
man he was at the start of the opera But Louise is clearly very unhappy and she
reminds her parents of their promise. She then affirms her right to be free, as
a waltz which was heard during her liberated period with Julien is heard It is
the voice of Paris itself and Louise becomes more and more
agitated, begging Paris to set her free Her father pleads and
argues, but Louise's desire for freedom has become too strong - it cannot be subdued.
Her father, enraged, chases her around the room and then orders her out of the
house In a burst of joyous desperation, she leaves Her father, exhausted, cans
after her, but when he realises he has lost her for ever, he rages against what
he sees as the real villain – Paris – as the curtain fans.
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CHARPENTIER, G.: Louise (Moore, Pinza, Beecham) (1...