Monday, September 5, 2016

The real Boheme: Gustave Charpentier's Louise


If asked to name an opera set in Paris and featuring bohemians and their working-class muses, most of us would probably think of Puccini's La Bohème (1896). Puccini's opera was based on a literary source, Henri Murger's novel Scènes de la vie de bohème (1851), which portrayed a group of struggling young artists and writers in the Paris of the 1830s.

But there is another opera set in bohemian Paris: Gustave Charpentier's Louise (1900). If Puccini and his librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giocosa depicted bohemian life, Charpentier lived it.

The son of a baker, Charpentier was working in a textile mill and playing in the municipal band in Tourcoing, a town near Lille, when his employer asked him for violin lessons. Impressed by the young man's musicianship, the employer sponsored Charpentier's admission to the Lille Conservatoire. It was soon apparent that he had absorbed everything the provincial conservatory could teach him, and the town council awarded him an annual stipend so that the nineteen-year-old could travel to Paris and continue his studies.


Gustave Charpentier

Charpentier was entranced by Paris. He lived in Montmartre, a working-class district home to many artists and musicians, and became a committed leftist. His rebellious behavior brought him into conflict with his teachers at the Conservatoire, and two years of compulsory military service interrupted his musical studies. But on his return he enrolled in a composition class taught by Jules Massenet—a choice (or stroke of fortune) that changed his life.

Massenet composed in a variety of genres, but especially vocal music and opera. He was also a former winner of the Prix de Rome, a prize which (with, no doubt, Massenet's support) Charpentier also won, with the cantata Didon. The prize subsidized a three-year stay at the French Academy in Rome.

While living and composing in Rome, Charpentier conceived of a musical drama whose subject would be the everyday life of Montmartre. The focus of this roman musical, or "musical novel," was the struggle of a young working-class woman, Louise, to find happiness with her artist lover despite the strong disapproval of her family.

This was a radical choice for an operatic subject. Most operas of the time still had literary, historical, or mythological sources. [1] In contrast, Charpentier's opera was semi-autobiographical; he had begun a long-term affair with a seamstress while attending the Conservatoire, and his opera's heroine may have been based in part on his lover. The coincidence of dates is notable: the love affair began in 1885, and the opera is set in the spring and summer of that year.

Not only were the characters in Louise based on his neighbors in Montmartre, but the story centered on a woman's bid to escape the constraints of her loving but limited and rigidly conventional family. As my partner wondered when I described the plot to her, "Does she die?" Catherine Clément (in Opera, or the Undoing of Women) is not the only person to notice that in 19th-century opera, women who defy social and sexual conventions—Norma, Lucia, Gilda, Violetta, Carmen, and Puccini's Tosca, Butterfly, and Mimi—often wind up dead. (Four suicides, two murders, and two deaths by consumption, if you're keeping track.)

But not Louise. In fact, at the end of the opera she achieves her freedom and happiness, even though we recognize that both may be fleeting. And both come at the cost of causing deep pain to her parents; in the opera's final moments, Louise's father curses her, and curses Paris for luring her away.

Progress on Louise was slow, and having gotten stuck on the later acts Charpentier hired the symbolist poet Saint-Pol-Roux to complete the libretto. Among other contributions, Saint-Pol-Roux provided the words for a third-act aria by Louise, "Depuis le jour où je me suis donnée" (Since the day I gave myself to you), in which she sings joyously to her painter lover Julien of the happiness that she's found with him.

Charpentier finally completed the opera in 1896, but earlier the same year Puccini's La Bohème had received its premiere and become a smash hit (although it did not receive its first performance in Paris for two more years). Perhaps the similarities between the two operas were what made the director of the Opéra-Comique, Léon Carvalho, suggest that the setting of Louise be changed to the mid-18th century. Carvalho also wanted a different ending, in which Julien would enter through a window during Louise's final argument with her father; the lovers would embrace, and Louise's father would bless the couple.

Fortunately none of those changes were made, and two years later Albert Carré (who had taken over as the director of the Opéra-Comique after Carvalho's death) decided to accept the opera without changes. It premiered as the first opera of the new century on 2 February 1900, and was an immediate success.

After eight performances the lead soprano, Marthe Rioton, fell ill and was replaced by an unknown singer named Mary Garden; her performance as Louise made her a star. Louise went on to have a hundred performances in its first season alone. Mary Garden recorded "Depuis le jour" four times, the first in 1912; it can be heard on YouTube.


Mary Garden as Mélisande

Despite his sudden success, Charpentier remained true to his political principles. In April 1900 he initiated the Oeuvre Mimi Pinson (named after the heroine of Alfred de Musset's poem), which provided free opera tickets to working-class women. In 1902 he founded the Conservatoire Populaire Mimi Pinson, which provided working-class girls and women with free instruction in music and dance.

In 1913 Charpentier's sequel to Louise, Julien, was first performed. It was well-received, but could not match the success of Louise. As Robert Orledge writes of Julien in the New Grove Dictionary of Music, "Immediate revivals were prevented by World War I, later ones by Charpentier's wisdom...In this pretentious allegorical mixture of reason and illusion he moves from the anecdotal and human approach of Louise towards abstract principles of passion and beauty, and his musical talent falls below the challenge of his dream." [2]

Perhaps all too aware of the shortcomings of Julien, Charpentier would never complete another work (although he lived until 1956). Other projects were announced, including an opera entitled Marie (presumably the daughter of Louise and Julien), but never realized.

In 1935 it was decided to record as much of Louise as could fit on eight double-sided 78 rpm discs (twice the number of discs as a typical album, but about half the number needed to record the whole work). Charpentier—now 75 and still living in the same Montmartre apartment—made the needed cuts for this "special version for the gramophone." Renowned singers Ninon Vallin and Georges Thill sang the roles of Louise and Julien, accompanied by Les Choeurs Raugel and Orchestra led by Eugène Bigot, longtime conductor at the Opéra-Comique. The recording won the Grand Prix du Disque, and despite the substantial abridgment and the limits of the mono sound is still perhaps the greatest recording of the opera that has ever been made. From that recording, "Depuis le jour":




The second verse:
Autour de moi tout est sourire,About me all is smiles,
lumière et joie!light and joy!
Et je tremble délicieusementAnd I tremble deliciously
Au souvenir charmantAt the charming memory
Du premier jour D'amour!Of the first day of Love!
The recording also inspired director Abel Gance (director of Napoléon) to make a film of Louise, which was released in 1938. Thill reprised the role of Julien, but the American singer and actress Grace Moore was brought in to play Louise (Moore was more than a decade younger than Vallin). If your library has access to Alexander Street Press streaming videos, you can view the full film; "Depuis le jour" is available on YouTube.

Moore would go on to make another recording of Louise five years later in New York, with Canadian tenor Raoul Jobin as Julien, accompanied by the Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. This live radio broadcast is marred by some wayward notes from the principals and by audience applause. But for me the main problem is Beecham's approach, which in "Depuis le jour" presses for excitement instead of the relaxed sensuality favored by Bigot (who, after all, was in direct contact with the composer) or of Mary Garden's 1912 recording (she, of course, learned the piece from its first conductor, André Messager). In my view, the abridged 1935 recording remains unsurpassed. It is available at bargain price on both Nimbus Records (NI 7829) and Naxos Historical (8.110225).

Note to SF Opera director Matthew Shilvock: Louise was last performed at SF Opera in 1999, with Renée Fleming as Louise, Jerry Hadley as Julien, Samuel Ramey as Louise's father, and Felicity Palmer as her mother; a young Jay Hunter Morris sang the role of a noctambulist. (How did I manage to miss it?) This opera is a prime candidate for a new or revived production in the next few seasons.



  1. Even Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana, set in a poor Sicilian village and often called the first verismo (naturalist) opera, was based on a Giovanni Verga short story and play. Cavalleria rusticana's premiere was held in Rome in 1890, the year Charpentier returned to Paris and after he had begun extensive work on his own opera.
  2. Robert Orledge, "Charpentier, Gustave," Grove Music Online.

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