Louise by Gustave Charpentier at Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. Sunday, 29 March 2015.
“Every little breeze seems to whisper Louise…”
It seems hardly possible that Opera In Concert (now rebranded as Voice Box/Opera in Concert) marks its 41st anniversary this past season. The organization – founded by the irrepressible vocal coach and pianist, Stuart Hamilton, C.M., – made its debut on October 21, 1974 with Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet. Since then they have presented over 150 different operas – most of them true rarities.
To close their current season, OIC (or, if you prefer, VBOIC) chose one of the minor masterpieces of French opera, Gustav Charpentier’s Louise – a classic example of French verismo. The libretto (by the composer) is a boy meets girl love story in which, needless to say, her parents do not approve.
During its day, Louise was enormously popular, but it was largely a one hit wonder for the composer. He attempted a sequel called Julien, ou La vie du poète, but it was not a success. When Charpentier died in 1956, it was shortly before the 1,000 performance of Louise at the Opèra Comique alone.
After its premiere in 1900, its popularity spread. It became associated with the great Scottish-American soprano, Mary Garden, but countless other sopranos soon took on the role. At the Metropolitan Opera alone, it became it became a favourite of Lucrezia Bori, Grace Moore, Dorothy Kirsten, Geraldine Farrar, and others. Even Mahler and Toscanini conducted Charpentier’s opera.
There is only one aria which is performed on recitals today, and that is Louise’s tender, yet ardent, Depuis le jour – a ‘must’ for any lyric soprano worth her salt.
OIC’s mandate is largely twofold. Firstly, it is an organization for the performance of rarely heard works and is targeted towards those hard-core opera fans who want to hear something other than La bohème or La traviata. Secondly, it is an organization that gives emerging artists a chance to tackle a major role. This recent performance of Louise is a perfect example of that mandate.
The only drawback is that the works are performed (with a couple of notable exceptions) with piano accompaniment. So, unfortunately, it is a bit like serving cake without the frosting. In French opera, much of the atmosphere and sensuality lies in the orchestration. Think of Massenet’s Manon or Thaïs. While pianist Peter Tiefenbach executed the score with vigour and commendable orchestral intent, one’s ear constantly missed the real thing – an orchestra.
So it is a compromise. Does one go to hear at least an artist’s sketch of a rarely performed or forgotten work; or do you wait with misguided optimism that one day you might hear the original score live with orchestra.
As Louise is a lengthy opera, it had to be cut back considerably. Roughly 45 minutes were excised. A wise move. Another approach would have been to perform the edition of the opera that Charpentier prepared and supervised when the opera was first recorded in Paris in 1935. At roughly 70 minutes this would have had, indirectly, the sanction of the composer.
The cast was perhaps not the strongest that OIC has ever assembled – with the exception of soprano Leslie Ann Bradley. In fact Bradley’s singing of the popular, “Depuis le jour”, was the vocal highlight of the afternoon, as she succesfully shaded, coloured and molded her lyric soprano. One could only fault her on her occasional muddy diction. To his credit, tenor Keith Klassen learned the entire role of the poet Julien in three weeks (stepping in at the last-minute for an indisposed colleague). The role lies particularly high in places and is difficult to cast. Unfortunately the timbre of his voice – with its steely, nasal quality – was unpleasant to the ear, as was his French pronunciation. Mezzo soprano Michèle Bogdanowicz was vocally secure – but perhaps a little over the top dramatically – in the role of Louise’s stern mother. Baritone Dion Mazerolle, as Louise’s father’ sang particularly well, but his characterization of the role was oddly rather benign at times.
The stage – as is often the case in OIC productions – was enlivened by the Opera in Concert Chorus. On this occasion, individual chorus members were also assigned the many solo bit parts which pepper the score. This shining ensemble – conducted by Robert Cooper – revealed a myriad of splendid voices.
Although performed on various occasions in Quebec, to the best of my knowledge Louise has never been performed in Toronto. Canadian contralto Maureen Forrester made her operatic stage debut as one of the seamstresses in 1953 in a production by the Opera Guild of Montreal, while later in her career she took on the role of Louise’s mother.
Next season OIC will feature Borodin’s Prince Igor, Salieri’s Falstaff and the world premiere of Isis and Osiris by Peter Togni.