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Charpentier: Louise
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 31 July 2011
As the opera itself extends to over two and a half hours of music, the seventy minutes here recorded in 1935 cannot really be called anything other than extended excerpts, judiciously trimmed and prepared by the aged composer himself (although he lived another twenty-one years until 1956) to make the issue of the 78's commercially viable and affordable. It is amazing how much of the content and spirit of the opera - a sort of French verismo companion piece to Puccini's "La Bohème", also set in Paris, of course - survives to delight. The main casualty of such a savage abridgement is the city of Paris itself, which in this opera is like an additional main character with its own collective voice made up of the street-sellers' cries, the voices of working people and the singers' own passionate apostrophes to its liberated and libertine spirit. It is tempting to assume that Charpentier borrowed ideas from "La Bohème" (premiered 1896) until one realises that although "Louise" was not premiered until 1900, it is set in 1885 and Charpentier had begun work on it as early as 1888, while in Italy having won the "Prix de Rome". Thus, if anything, Puccini could have been inspired by him in "La Rondine", as those two operas also have some marked similarities and "La Rondine" was not premiered until 1917, by which time "Louise" was well on its way to a record 500 performances by 1921. Furthermore, "Il tabarro", premiered 1917, also relies heavily on atmospheric tone-poem depictions of the Seine and the colourful lives and speech of working class folk - already present here in Charpentier's opera. And where is "Louise" now? On the margins of opera, a mote floating in the peripheral vision even of cognoscenti.

Charpentier did not have Puccini's melodic invention or subtlety of orchestration and he clearly makes a few good motifs go a long way by reworking his material - but these are good tunes and sung as they are here by two supreme French artists supported by a company wholly at ease in the idiom, this opera becomes irresistible. I adore anything sung By Georges Thill and Ninon Vallin; his gleaming, virile tenor and her warmth and flexibility make them the perfect couple - even though she was fifty at the time of recording she sounds every inch the spirited teenager rebelling against parental smothering. Their diction is superb and we get enough of the flavour of the crowd scenes and vendors' refrains to give us the sense of a seething metropolis. André Pernet is especially credible and sympathetic as the doting father who wants to keep his little girl at home and the orchestral playing is spirited and enthusiastic - if not exactly refined.

The sound Nimbus gives us is admirably clean and clear: hiss and crackling are virtually non-existent and the warm ambience typical of their processing is perfect for conveying a feeling of spaces opening up literally and metaphorically. This recording won the Grand Prix du Disque: I completely forgot about how venerable it is while listen to it, so immediate is its impact.

If you want the whole thing, have this an affordable supplement and look out either for the excellent, authentic 1956 mono set on Philips conducted by Fournet or even the 1981 version with Cotrubas very touching, a young Domingo singing heroically, and a Gallic supporting cast all well conducted by Georges Prêtre.
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