It is surprising that Charpentier’s Louise is not a permanent fixture at the Opéra Bastille. There are not many operas in which the main role is, in effect, played by a city, extravagantly portrayed as the eternal symbol of romance and freedom for the young at heart. The city is, of course, Paris.
Charpentier’s story of a poor girl in love with a penniless poet among the city’s garrets is similar to Puccini’s La bohème, which had its premiere just four years earlier in 1896. But where Puccini’s interest lies in wringing the maximum emotion out of the individual characters, Charpentier gives his tale a cosmic dimension worthy of Wagner. No wonder that his music, like that of so many French composers of his generation, has echoes of Parsifal.
Most directors cannot resist the temptation to illustrate the symbolism of Louise with panoramic sets looking out across the rooftops of Paris, but André Engel’s new production with designs by Nicky Rieti avoids travelogue prettiness. Instead, going underground, he sets the early morning hymn to Paris in the Métro station at Montmartre, where prostitutes and beggars linger.
The scenes with Louise’s family are no less truthful, a slice of kitchen sink drama, updated here from 1900 to the middle of the 20th century. Charpentier edges the action along at a snail’s pace and it takes singers with a strong presence to hold one’s attention. Jane Henschel assertively did so as the unforgiving mother and José Van Dam, now in his late 60s, was a tower of strength as the father.
Where beauty was called for, the performance was less successful. This was partly because Mireille Delunsch sounded strained as Louise – though there was compensation in the warmly lyrical singing of Paul Groves as her lover Julien – and partly because the orchestral playing under conductor Sylvain Cambreling lacked precision and beauty. Some of the voices also fought to be heard, though they are never helped by the Opéra Bastille’s difficult acoustics.
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