|About this Recording
8.110225 - CHARPENTIER: Louise (Vallin, Thill) (1935)
Gustave CHARPENTIER (1860-1956)
During the nineteenth century French opera and its subject matter ran the gamut from the stars to the gutter. The excesses of grand opera, with its five acts and interpolated ballet, were mostly concerned with seemingly important events and people. Even the productions of the Opéra-Comique were generally set in some unworldly milieu, but Auber’s and Massenet’s settings of Manon Lescaut brought in the question of immorality, as did the Italian Verdi’s settings of French subjects in Rigoletto and La traviata. A more demotic and democratic strain in French literature led to operas such as Bizet’s Carmen, with its leading characters drawn from the common people, and Puccini’s La Bohème, which dealt with a French novel and concerned itself with struggling artists in Parisian garrets. Other Italian composers such as Mascagni and Leoncavallo (who wrote his own treatment of La Bohème, just as Puccini had done one of Manon Lescaut) took up this more approachable but also more risqué type of subject. The working-class and bohemian trend in French opera found its most characteristic expression in Louise, an opera now remembered for a single aria – indeed, it could be argued that it is known for one exquisite four-note phrase, with which the soprano launches that aria, ‘Depuis le jour’. Its composer Gustave Charpentier lived for almost a century, had his one huge success with Louise and is now hardly thought of, except when he is confused with his namesake from the time of Louis XIV. The value of the present recording is two-fold: it shows how much enjoyable music there is in Louise, apart from ‘Depuis le jour’, and it preserves near-perfect exemplars of a French style of singing, playing and conducting that is all but vanished today.
Charpentier, who had something of a bohemian reputation himself, deserved his one hit, as he put a great deal of work into it. Humbly born and a late starter in music, he did not reach the Lille Conservatoire until he was fifteen, and in 1881, when he was already 21, he entered the Paris Conservatoire on a scholarship. For Louise he drew on his own experience of living in Montmartre in his student days, which climaxed when he won the Prix de Rome in 1887. It was during his obligatory stay in Rome that he began work on Louise, writing the libretto himself although he also had help from friends. He had some success with orchestral works and incorporated an occasional work of 1898, the Fête du couronnement de la muse, into Act 3 of his opera.
Louise caught the mood of the moment. At its première at the Opéra-Comique on 2nd February 1900, under the baton of André Messager, it appeared to express the spirit of the new century that was just dawning. Quite early in the run, both the original Louise, Marthe Rioton, and her understudy were ailing and at the eighth performance on 10th April the second understudy, a young Scots soprano called Mary Garden, had to come on in Act 3 as a replacement for Rioton. She was a sensation and on 25th April she was able to sing a complete performance. Charpentier’s working-class heroine had found her ideal interpreter and it is difficult to say whether Louise made Garden’s reputation or Garden made Louise’s. ‘Only in Louise was I myself on stage, because she was so like me,’ Garden said. ‘She was a daring sort of character. She lived hard. She believed in free love. She enjoyed everything about life.’ In 1903 Louise was heard in both Berlin (with Emmy Destinn) and Vienna (with Mahler conducting). In 1908 the opera reached New York, at the Manhattan Opera with Garden, and in 1909 Louise Edvina sang the title rôle at Covent Garden. A famous production was that conducted by Arturo Toscanini at La Scala in 1923, with Fanny Heldy and Aureliano Pertile. Charpentier wrote a sequel, Julien, which was first performed at the Opéra-Comique on 4th June 1913 and had its American première on 26th February 1914 at the Metropolitan, where the singing of Enrico Caruso in the title rôle and Geraldine Farrar as Louise ensured it at least some success. It never really caught on, however, whereas all the tenors and sopranos wanted to appear in Louise, and the rôle of the Father attracted such interpreters as Lucien Fugère, Marcel Journet, Robert Radford, Ezio Pinza and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni.
The present recording was one of the potted operas that were popular in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It was presumably thought uncommercial to record the entire score and so the approval of Gustave Charpentier was sought for an abridgement. He even assisted in the production. Three of the best French singers of the day, Ninon Vallin, Georges Thill and André Pernet, all famous exponents of their rôles, were recruited, along with the distinguished conductor Eugène Bigot; and the recording was followed up by a film, made by the director Abel Gance in 1938, in which Thill and Pernet repeated their rôles with the glamorous Grace Moore as Louise. Sadly on that occasion even more of the music was cut, although Charpentier coached Miss Moore – staying on the set throughout the shooting – and the movie was wonderfully atmospheric (it has appeared on video).
Eugène Bigot, born in Rennes on 28th February 1888, studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Xavier Leroux, André Gédalge and Paul Vidal. He began his career as chorus master in the first season of the Théatre des Champs-Elysées under Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht (1913-14). During the First World War he won the Croix de Guerre fighting in the French army. His career then advanced steadily: the Swedish Ballet (1920-23), Société des Concerts du Conservatoire ((1923-25), Théâtre des Champs-Elysées (1925-28), French Radio (1928-34), Monte Carlo (1934-35), Concerts Lamoureux (1935-51), Opéra-Comique (1936-47). In 1947 he helped to found the French Radio Orchestra and was associated with it until his death in Paris on 17th July 1965. A composer as well as a conductor, he left innumerable recordings, and was especially valued as a concerto accompanist.
Eugénie ‘Ninon’ Vallin was born on 9th September 1886 at Montalieu-Vercien and studied first at the Lyon Conservatoire, then at the Paris Conservatoire with Meyriane Héglon, a favourite singer of Saint-Saëns. Initially Vallin appeared as a concert singer, taking part in the first performance of Debussy’s Le martyre de Saint Sébastien in 1911. She made her stage début at the Opéra-Comique in 1912 as Micaëla in Carmen and was soon regarded as one of the most brilliant sopranos of the day. Debussy accompanied her in recital and she appeared in many operatic premières. Although her career was anchored in Paris, she was well known in South America and Italy and made guest appearances in most other centres. Having retired from opera in 1943, she continued to give recitals for a time. Later she taught singing. She died on 22nd November 1961 at Millery, near Lyon. Ninon Vallin was a prolific recording artist and took part in a famous set of Werther with Georges Thill (Naxos 8.110061-62).
Georges Thill was one of the best of a breed once numerous but now extinct, the French dramatic tenor. Born on 14th December 1897 in Paris, he studied at the Conservatoire there before going to the Neapolitan tenor Fernando de Lucia for further lessons. He made his début at the Opéra-Comique in 1919 as Don José in Carmen and after consolidating his career in France, began a truly international career in the late 1920s. He was regarded as equally proficient in French and Italian opera and the lighter Wagnerian rôles and had an unusually long operatic career, lasting until 1953. His last concert was given in 1956. This longevity was a tribute to the soundness of his vocal method, which he passed on to his pupils. He died at Lorgues on 17th October 1984. He made many records, some of them regarded as definitive.
André Pernet was born on 6th January 1894 at Rambervillers and served in the French army during World War I. He then studied law before going to the Paris Conservatoire. He made his début at Nice in 1921 as Vitellius in Massenet’s Hérodiade and then sang in various provincial theatres before making his Paris Opéra début in 1928. Apart from the 1931-32 season, when he sang exclusively at the Opéra-Comique after a dispute with the Opéra management, he was a pillar of both Parisian houses until 1948, also making guest appearances in Amsterdam, London, Brussels and North America. In 1949 he retired and he died in Paris on 23rd June 1966. Pernet did not make a large number of records but he can be heard in a set of Les contes d’Hoffmann as well as a superb post-war performance of Boris Godunov, sung in French under Ernest Ansermet’s baton.
The action takes place in Paris, in ‘the present’.
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 his love for Louise. She appears at her window 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.  They recall their first meeting, the objections of her parents and their plans, overheard by Louise’s mother, who seizes Louise and shuts her in the kitchen and admonishes Julien through the window. She makes fun of Louise’s and Julien’s words and calls Julien a drunk and a debaucher. Louise and her mother argue.  Her mother 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. Her father is well enough disposed to Julien and does not seem set against his daughter’s marriage, but her mother is furious, and after some more harsh words, she slaps Louise. Her father gently asks his daughter to read the paper to him, but when the subject turns to Paris in the spring, Louise is reduced to tears, as the curtain falls.
 The scene is a wide street in Montmartre. It is five o’clock in an April morning. 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. 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.  In the seamstress’s shop, the girls work and sing. One of them notices that Louise has been crying and suggests that she is in love. Irma, in particular, tells of her own amorous ambitions. They tease Louise with 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 see Louise and Julien arm in arm. They laugh in approval.
 The scene is set in 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 Montmartre. 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. She promises Julien that Louise can return whenever she pleases, and Louise hesitantly leaves.
 The scene is the same as in the first act, but 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 will 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, calls 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 falls.
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