About this Recording
8.110102-04 - CHARPENTIER, G.: Louise (Moore, Pinza, Beecham) (1943)

Gustave Charpentier (1860-1956): Lol

Gustave 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.


Charpentier 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.


Charpentier never 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.




The action 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.


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. 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.


Bob Levine


Close the window