The San Francisco Opera's new production of Gustave Charpentier's "Louise" is lavish and elegant, without any excesses. The social undercurrents of the relationship of parent to grown child, and poor to rich is as relevant today as it was in 1900 when the opera debuted. Thierry Bosquet's set designs are loosely based on Maurice Utrillo's sketches for the 50th Anniversary production of "Louise," and are realized by John Coyne. Bosquet's costume designs are based on actual photographs of members of the working class he found while browsing through Paris antique shops.
We open with a scrim of the Paris skyline of 1900. It fades to Julien's balcony above Paris. The tops of the buildings recede in the background. Louise comes out on her balcony, and they sing an enrapturing duet before her mother pulls her into their apartment. The interior has an old wood stove that looks like the one in Eugene Delacroix's painting of his studio. Louise and her father exchange furtive glances and gestures to the glowingly transparent music. There's a melancholy and strangely dysfunctional aspect to this family that seems so loving. The father soliloquizes on the rich; are they happier than the working class? He says "Happiness is like us - loving each other and staying well." Louise longs for Julien with every fiber of her being. Her father seems willing enough, but her shrewish mother won't even consider it. Felicity Palmer's mother seems to see in Louise everything she was and has lost, or everything she wanted and aspired to, but never had.
Act 2 opens in the streets of a factory district of Paris. It's morning, and the people who live in doorways are just awakening. A young rag picker girl wants silk sheets and nice clothes. She says it's everyone's right to have a warm bed, like everyone has a right to sunshine. She's mocked by the others, who have resigned themselves to having none. The noctambulist tells us he embodies the pleasures of Paris, he is the procurer for this great city. He knocks down the ragpicker, whose daughter he has stolen long ago. This is the underside of society, and it doesn't seem to have changed, even today. After Louise is dropped off at the sewing factory by her mother, Julien pleads with her to run away with him. She refuses, and he stands forlornly as the used clothes seller passes by, and we hear the merchants in the plaintive sounds of Paris, off stage. It's hard to be an artichoke seller on the streets of Paris.
In the factory the girls are all sewing. They fuss and fight , while Louise sits sewing in the corner, lost in thought. The girls all run to the window to see Julien serenade Louise. When his song turns plaintive, they mock him. Louise is overcome and runs off with him.
Act 3 opens on a beautiful courtyard. There's a white picket fence with roses against a backdrop of Paris upper stories at sunset. Julien sits on a bench as Renee Fleming's Louise sings the luscious "Dupuis le Jour." Life is beautiful and she sings of her happiness as her soaring song brings down the house. When Julien asks if she has regrets about running off with him, she recounts how her mother was always scolding and hitting her, her father always treated her like a little girl, and at work they didn't understand her. Jerry Hadley's Julien rhapsodizes about the power of love, how they are free to follow their own conscience, and how Louise is the symbol of Paris, and he "loves her because she reflects you."
Sunset turns to night for the spectacular "Muse of Montmarte" street celebration. This is the summit of happiness with brightly colored characters and dancers. Louise is crowned "Queen of Montmarte" in the ecstatic climax, before her mother appears as a specter in the night in black at the back. All celebrants leave as the gloomy Louise absentmindedly picks up a flower and smells it. She is persuaded to return home to help cheer and heal her sick father, as Julien agrees and the night sky fills with stars.
Back at her parents, Louise is a prisoner. Samuel Ramey's father has gotten used to sadness. He says "We're all like beasts of burden under the yoke of fate." They treat Louise like a possession. We see her through a scrim sewing as her father condemns the thief who has stolen her. It's an extreme case of the conflict between parents and grown children who want to follow their own dreams, make their own mistakes, claim their own triumphs, and reap their own success. An interesting note: All of the cast members, major and minor, are performing their parts for the first time in their careers. Patrick Summers leads the orchestra and the all star cast in Lotfi Mansouri's fabulous new production of Charpentier's "Louise" at The San Francisco Opera.