Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Gustave Charpentier's Louise in Buxton

Buxton Opera House
Gustave Charpentier Louise; Madeleine Pierard, Adrian Dwyer, Susan Bickley, Michael Druiett, cond: Stephen Barlow, Northern Chamber Orchestra; Buxton Festival at Buxton Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 19 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Charpentier's luscious opera gets a once in a generation outing

Gustave Charpentier (1860-1956) rose from relatively humble origins to study at the Paris Conservatoire with Massenet and to win the Prix de Rome. His opera Louise (1900) is his best known work and had outstanding success in his lifetime but even this exists mainly by reputation nowadays. The last UK production of Louise (certainly the last professional production in London) seems to have been in 1981 at English National Opera when Valerie Masterson sang the title role. So it was with eager anticipation that eyes (and ears)  turned to the Buxton Festival when they mounted semi-staged concert performances of the opera (seen Sunday 19 July 2015) conducted by Stephen Barlow, with Madeleine Pierard as Louise, Adrian Dwyer as Julien, Susan Bickley as Mother and Michael Druiett as Father, plus Adrian Thompson as Noctambuliste, and the smaller roles taken by members of the Buxton Festival Opera with the Northern Chamber Orchestra in the pit.

In describing the style of Gustave Charpentier's luscious score I found myself coming back to the music of his contemporary Delius (1862-1934). Both composers have the same sense of endless melody and lack of conventional structure and like Delius' operas such as A Village Romeo and Juliet (1910), Louise makes extensive use of the orchestra.

Though the opera is sometimes described as realistic, and the first French Verismo opera, this naturalism really only extends to the way Gustave Charpentier's libretto is almost exclusively dialogue with no interior monologues and the action of Louise's home life is depicted with stifling naturalness, but this was surrounded by a rich orchestral texture and individual vocal phrases could be followed by long orchestral sections. Though dealing with the subject of working class/petit bourgeois lives, never once did the opera sound like dialogue the way Janacek's operas do (Jenufa 1903/4).

That Gustave Charpentier was his own librettist meant that there was no-one to say stop and he seems to have had no 'off' button. The opera encompasses over three hours of music. The tone of the piece varies from the strained family atmosphere of Louise and her controlling parents, to the comedy of the dialogues of the people in the street and Louise's work-mates, to the poetry of the evocation of the street cries of Paris to the lyrical rapture of Louise and Julien's Act Three duet, which follows on from the opera's only aria, Louise's Depuis le jour. One of the most notorious scenes (not depicted in Ella Marchment's demi-semi staging at Buxton) is where mother prepares and the family eats soup for supper.


The design of the opera is distinctive too, with the public action concentrated in acts 2 and 3, and the first and last acts being in Louise's apartment, Act One starts in media res with Louise and Julien in dialogue across the windows of the their adjacent apartments, interrupted by mother and a tense family scene develops. This is done at a leisurely tempo, in Buxton Act One lasted 45 minutes and Stephen Barlow did not hang around with his tempos. For Act Two we move to a street corner in Montmartre, lots of amusing vignettes lead to Julien and his friends, and finally Louise (chaperoned by her mother) on her way to work. A tense scene between Louise and Julien reveals her confusion between family and bohemia. Serenaded at work by Julien she finally joins him. Act Three sees the couple alone in a long (long) rapturous scene, but one in which Julien is at times worryingly didactic. The coming of his friends leads to her crowning as the Queen of Montmartre, but interrupted by mother as father is ill. Act Four is back with the family, father has recovered but she is not allowed to leave. He rounds on the temptations of Paris, and in a very tense and intense scene Louise rounds on him as she hymns the joys of Pars (with off-stage chorus) till she is thrown out leaving her parents bereft.

Louise and Julien require old-fashioned voices, ones with lyrical flexibility but with the narrow bore power to cut through the orchestra in their big moments. Madeleine Pierard delivered beautifully, bringing a lyrical intensity to the role and a real sense of Louise's interior life. Depuis le jour was poised, her duet with Adrian Dwyer's Julien rapturous, and she rounded on Michael Druiett's father with real viciousness. Adrian Dwyer had a rather high-tension edge to his voice, but he delivered in spades production a steady even and tireless stream of lyrical power. We never get a glimpse of Julien's interior life; is he the paragon Louise thinks, or the dissolute cad of mother's imaginings? We never know, and Adrian Dwyer did not reveal. He joined with Madeleine Pierard to make Act Three glorious but the character disappear from Act Four,

In mother, Susan Bickley gave us one of opera's super-bitches. Susan Bickley made much of little, and created a strong sense of character from short phrases, looks and body language. Michael Druiett as father was a decent man who thinks he is doing right by his daughter. The shocked tension of his final confrontation with his her was palpable.

One of the reasons why the opera is not often done is the number of smaller roles. The 16 singers of the Buxton Festival Chorus (plus an extra eight seamstresses) shared the 30+ small roles, and did so brilliantly. Each singer got their stand out moment (see cast list below), whilst Adrian Thompson played the Noctambulist and the prince of fools with great character.

In the pit, Stephen Barlow clearly loved the score and drew rapturous, lyrical playing from the Northern Chamber Orchestra. But he didn't love the piece to death, the music moved fluidly and lyrically, and in the big moments he ensured that the young voices were not covered.

With a libretto as full of stage description and direction as that of Louise, it is a shame that the surtitles did not include an element of help for the audience. As it was we had long stretches of orchestra music during which we had to make an educated guess as to what was going on, (you can see the libretto in French as the admirable OperaGlass website.

I am pleased, finally to have heard Louise, but I don't hold my breath for a staging and because so much of the action is couched in dialogue with the core dramatic ensemble scenes taking second place, the opera almost doesn't need staging.

Louise - cast list 19 July 2015, Buxton Festival
Louise – Madeleine Pierard
Julien – Adrian Dwyer
Mère – Susan Bickley
Père – Michael Druiett
Noctambuliste – Adrian Thompson
Irma, Marchande de pois verts – Catarina Sereno
Le Chiffonier, Sculpteur – Jamie Rock
La Petite Chiffoniere, Camille – Joanna Norman
L’Apprentie, Gavroche, Marguerite, Madame de Mouron – Georgina Stalbrow
Suzanne, La Plieuse – Helen Bailey
La Rempailleuse, Blanche – Natalie Sinnott
La Glaneuse, La Premiere, Elise – Imogen Garner
Une Vieille, Madeleine, Laitiere – Anna Jeffers
La Balayeuse, Gertrude – Claire Barnett-Jones
Chansonnier, Marchand – Stuart Laing
Etudiant, Marchand de carottes – Brian McNamee
Poete – Alexander Grainger
Marchand d’habits – Thomas Luckett
Peintre, Balais – David Howes
Vieux Boheme – Richard Moore
Bricoleur, Philosophe – Aaron O’Hare

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