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Poster of Louise at the Opéra-Comique in Paris (1900)
20 Jul 2008

Geez, Louise

“Quelle plaisir” to encounter Gustave Charpentier’s seldom performed “Louise” at the Paris Opera in a production where most everything went spectacularly right.

Above: Poster of Louise at the Opéra-Comique, Paris (1900)


As re-imagined here, these are not the prettied-up and rather charming bohemians favored by Puccini, but rather a French verismo take on the lower class aspiring bumblingly to bourgeois values.

The production team chose not to set it at the turn of the century, but rather to the more drab, workaday mid-twentieth century, to good effect. I am not sure I remember any set design or more specifically, construction, as impressive as the colossal creations by Nicky Rieti. Every time the curtain was raised, another massive, detailed location was revealed to palpable audience response.

The opening expository scene was played out on sets of stairs wedged in a narrow vertical space between two low income housing buildings, trimmed in by masking, and which ascended from stage floor all the way into the flies above. This gave way to an oppressively realistic interior living/dining room that was the heroine’s “prison.” Setting the street scene on the Montmartre Metro platform was a winning and witty invention, especially as it was visually replaced by the Metro entrance with “Louise” departing it on her way to work. Her dress shop was a massive two level structure. which allowed the large female chorus ample room for interplay, and provided excellent opportunities for visual variety. The stage right windows on the stair landing opened to accommodate the passing parade and allowed “Julien” access to appear and take “Louise” away.

The libretto’s cottage overlooking Paris was replaced here by a contemporary rooftop structure that gave the lovers plenty of room to romp during the expansive love duet, and provided a more acidic visual commentary to counter-balance the sweetness of “Depuis le jour.” The subsequent scene in which “Louise” is crowned Queen of Montmartre in a mock beauty pageant was brilliantly set in a public space that appeared to be part music hall, part political rally, complete with a rudimentary proscenium stage and runway, and elevated galleries. The piece came full circle with the girl back in her hellish, mundane “prison” with her manipulative parents.

The apt costumes were created by Chantal de La Coste Messelière, who excelled with the colorful opportunities afforded by the “subway” denizens, as well as the beauty pageant participants and onlookers. The evocative lighting was by André Diot, who unapologetically used follow-spots to fine effect, witness the isolation of “Louise” after her mother convinces her to return home to her ailing father.

One reason that “Louise” may not be more frequently performed is that Charpentier’s score places enormous demands on the two principals who must convey youthful buoyancy but sing like jugend-Wagnerians. Happily, Paris came up with a terrific duo in Mireille Delunsch and Gregory Kunde.

Ms. Delunsch does not yet sing much outside of France and she deserves to. For hers is a very pliant lyric voice with a slight steely edge that not only meets the introspective demands of the role, but can ride the orchestra on the dramatic “money” moments. She does not have a highly distinctive sound, and the bit of metal might not charm those who have Renee or Beverly or Victoria irrevocably in their ear, but for my Euro she not only has the solid technique but also the pleasing stage presence to bring it off.

Mr. Kunde was a revelation to me, for he can not only melt the heart with his suave legato phrasings, but can also let rip with a gorgeous, generous outpouring of slightly weighted arching lines at full throttle. Thanks, too. to his sincere and affecting acting and ever-responsive musicality, this was the star turn of the night.

That is not to deny “mother” and “father” a place in the firmament. Alain Vernhes and Jane Henschel contributed solid vocalism and wonderful impersonations of their two unsympathetic, calculating parents. Even as they were consistently controlling, the two managed to mine every ounce of nuance out of their parts, and had their pitiable moments.

The large cast of minor soloists all made a fine contribution to the evening, with an outstanding tenor Luca Lombardo doing memorable double duty as “Noctambule” and “Pope of the Fools.”

André Engel was the fine director who created beautiful stage pictures through logical movements in the large scenes with the massive forces. He was equally adept at developing the complex character relationships, and addressing the ever changing dynamics between the four principals. There was nary a false move over the long evening, and the naturalistic blocking provided the loving clarity and illumination the piece needs. Only the expansive movement during the love duet on the roof seemed a but strained. While it mirrored the orchestral outpourings, it seemed a bit out of character even for two people in love who have discovered their freedom.

Conductor Patrick Davin struck just the right balance between stage and pit, and he and his orchestra seemed to revel in every detail and delight in this unjustly neglected work. If some of the atmospheric scenes amble a bit (the street people, the dress makers), it is never more so that in “Suor Angelica,” say and it is frequently more engaging and touching. In any case, Davin is a conductor to watch for. Excellent.

Paris Opera’s production makes such a strong case for “Louise” (if such proof were needed) that I would hope other companies might take note and plan a revival so their local patrons can similarly rejoice in its many pleasures.

James Sohre

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