Buxton Festival Presents an Operatic Rarity: Charpentier’s Louise

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Gustav Charpentier (1860-1956), Louise. (an opera in four acts, 1900),  Soloists, Buxton Festival Chorus and Northern Chamber Orchestra / Stephen Barlow (conductor), Buxton Festival, Opera House, Buxton, 16.7.2015. (RJF)

A concert performance sung in French with English Surtitles.


Louise,  Madeleine Pierard
Julien, Adrian Dwyer
Mère, Susan Bickley
Père, Michael Druiett
Noctambuliste, Adrian Thompson
Irma, Caterina Sereno
Le Chiffonier, Jamie Rock

A new innovation at this year’s Buxton Festival has been to make a modest charge, £2, for attendance at the normal pre performance talk from 6.15pm in the theatre. These last around thirty minutes and usually involve the conductor and director who talk about the staging and the music we are to hear, sometimes taking questions. There are exceptions as with Lucia Di Lamermoor when the director and his designer gave the talk. For Louise, it being a concert performance without staging, the talk was given by the conductor together with Simon Rees, formerly dramaturg at Welsh National Opera who had provided the translated surtitles for both Giovanna D’Arco and Lucia, his wife having done the same for Louise. After years of hearing Simon Rees give such talks I described him as without peer as a source of erudition, alongside humour, on any opera and its setting and background you could mention. When he appeared alongside Stephen Barlow, Music Director of the Festival and conductor of Louise and no mean raconteur, I knew it was destined to be a good start to an evening of a concert performance of a work that rarely gets a full outing of any sort. So it proved with each sparking the other to the entertainment and information of those present.

Premiered in 1900, the same year as Puccini’s Tosca, Louise is in a significantly different musical idiom. Whilst it is possible to see an evolutionary development from middle period Verdi into verismo, real life, in Italian opera, there seems to me to be no such lineage between Carmen and Faust in French opera with what followed. Berlioz, Massenet and Debussy among others, were the progenitors that drove French opera towards the end of romanticism and an orchestral patina that, at least as exemplified by Louise, put a smaller distance towards that which followed than was the case with Italian opera. The marriage of the melodic line and the singer is very much subservient to the orchestral imagery.  Certainly Stephen Barlow on the rostrum was immediately into the orchestral colours and tonal complexity found in the dramatics of Louise than he was in the Donizetti opera and his contribution was significant in a performance of great power.

I was a little disappointed to see the soloists and chorus so dependent on their scores, whether on the music stands in front of them or in their hands. Unlike last year’s performance of Rossini’s Otello (see review) there was little or no attempt at interaction; each sang his or her role with only minimum glances at colleagues they were addressing in the words. Overall the singers matched the excellent standard of the orchestral contribution. I was initially a little uncomfortable with Adrian Dwyer, finding his tone edgy and harsh in Act One. However, in the long love duet of act three that follows the operas most famous piece, Louise’s Depuis du jour, he was much more mellifluous and expressive, a joy to hear. Madeleine Pierard in the eponymous role of his lover who strains away from the dominance of her parents towards Paris and the Bohemian life was a veritable tour de force in respect of vocal variety, dramatic nuance and good diction, the latter being a welcome quality among the soloists. The fact that I could not always follow their French lay in my failings not theirs!

Of Louise’s implacable parents Susan Bickley was outstanding in the quality of her singing. Her tonal beauty, expression and vocal variety of nuance, were all that we as we might expect from her vast experience. If Michael Druiett, as Louise’s father, was a little short of that quality, he was vocally sonorous, strong and dramatic in conveying the whole character and personality of a man that Louise has to escape if she is to develop as an individual. In a staged performance his physical presence would have been even more overwhelming. Notable in the lesser parts were the warm tones of Caterina Sereno and the incisive singing of Adrian Thompson as the noctambulist, or nightwalker of Paris, who in this case merely walked on and sang!

Robert J Farr

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