Sunday, June 15, 2014

The seamstress and the Artist – Louise Loves Julien

This Once or Twice a Fortnight is my post from June 15th, 2014  

This month, OTF will consider two operas from two different traditions (although composed within a few years of each other) that explore a common major plotline: the romance between a seamstress and an artist. In both cases, the action takes place in Paris, but the circumstance, and romantic outcome are very different.

A French example of verismo opera, our first of two opera is Louise by Gustave Charpentier (1860-1956).

Charpentier did not come from a musical family—his father was a baker—but his family encouraged his interest in music and allowed him to study the violin at an early age. His formal studies, however, did not begin until he was a teenager, joining the Paris Conservatoire in 1881 There he took lessons in composition under Jules Massenet (from 1885) and had a reputation of wanting to shock his professors. In 1887 won the Prix de Rome. It was there, while living at the Villa Medici, that Charpentier began work on Louise which was destined to become his most famous work. The composer himself created the scenario, based on his own time in Montmartre; Charpentier maintained that he was the sole author of the final libretto, but research has shown that he paid the poet Saint-Pol-Roux to write at least some of the text.

Louise tells the story of a poet who falls in love with a seamstress set in Bohemian Paris. While it sounds like a La Boheme rip off, the occupations of the main characters and the setting are all the two operas have in common. Louise, the main character loves Julien, a poet, but is torn between running off to Paris with the love of her life and her domineering parents who disapprove of their daughter's choices in life.

Many of Charpentier's friends and colleagues suggested that the libretto was too realistic, too crude; the composer made a number of revisions to the text before finally completing the music in 1896. The opera was premiered at the Opera Comique early in 1900 and was an astounding success. It has been called a "roman musical," an early example of "verismo," and a "realist" drama; most importantly, Louise secured Charpentier's fame as a composer and earned him many honors, including election to the Academie des Beaux Arts.

Paul Dukas once wrote of Louise: "The first and last acts are those of a master; the other two are those of an artist; the whole is the work of a man."

Louise is an opera that may be known today as a work with only one hit "Depuis le jour" to its credit, but at one time it was a staple at the great opera houses of the world and was reputed to be a favorite of the Metropolitan Opera's Sir Rudolf Bing who could never remember its name and referred to it as "the one with the girls and the sewing machines."

Interestingly Charpentier founded a school of music, the Conservatoire Populaire Mimi Pinson in 1902, which offered free musical instruction to Paris' many "midinettes"—the shop girls who were popularized in Louise.

Charpentier's next success was the opera Julien of 1913, essentially a sequel to Louise. Probably the second work in an intended trilogy (never to be completed), Julien was not as successful as Louise, but shares many of the latter's charateristics: both are naturalistic music dramas that include the sights and sounds of life on the streets of Paris.
After Julien, Charpentier completed virtually no music, and instead busied himself with organizing concerts and writing as a music critic. Interested in modern technological developments like the gramophone, radio, and film, Charpentier participated in a film version of Louise in 1936; however, he became a recluse after World War II, and produced no more music until his death in 1956.

The Performance
This particular recording is one of the few recordings of this work, studio or otherwise. With Ileana Cotrubas and Placido Domingo as Louise and Julian respectively, who recorded the work at the height of their careers, led by conductor Georges Prete, it is almost guaranteed that the set will be a musical treat and it is indeed. It is also strengthened by some of the best known performers in the French repertoire namely Gabriel Bacquier, Jane Berbie, and Michel Senechal.

Gustave Charpentier (1860 – 1956)
Louise (1900)
opera (roman musical) in four acts to an original French libretto by the composer, with some contributions by Saint-Pol-Roux

Ileana Cotrubas (Louise)
Plácido Domingo (Julien)
Gabriel Bacquier (Father)
Jane Berbié (Mother)
Michel Sénéchal (The noctambulist)
Ambrosian Opera Chorus, New Philharmonia Orchestra
Gorges Pretre (1976)

Synopsis -
Libretto -
Performance -

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