“Louise” an opera or, as its composer terms it a musical romance, in four acts and five tableaux, was first produced in Paris in 1900. Both music and text are from the pen of Gustave Charpentier.
Julien, an artist. The Father. Louise. The Mother.
The night-walker. The old Bohemian. A song writer.
Philosophers, a painter, a sculptor, a ballad writer, a young poet, a student, a ragpicker, a jack of all trades, policemen, an apprentice, a street urchin, guardians of the peace, an old Bohemian, vendors of potatoes, chickweed, green peas, brooms, barrels, old clothes.
Irma, Marguerite, Camille, Blanche, sewing-girls. Gertrude, Suzanne, Elise, Madelaine, Dressmakers, apprentices and forewomen. A ragpicker, a street-sweeper, a milkwoman, various street vendors.
The heroine, Louise, is the daughter of a workingman and spends her daylight hours in the shop of a dressmaker. Her parents are simple folk with strict ideas of honor. They keep her as a recluse and refuse her hand to Julien, a penniless young artist of alleged bad character, whom she adores. When the opera opens there is disclosed a room in a tenement where the little family resides. The girl is at the window talking to Julien, who stands outside. They speak of their love and recall incidents of their forcefully surreptitious courtship and Julien urges Louise to elope with him since they cannot get her parents’ consent to the marriage. The mother, overhearing them, bluntly terminates the interview, mockingly repeats some of their tender words, and overwhelms Louise with reproaches.
After a little while, the father comes home. While Louise sets the table, he reads a letter from Julien asking him for her again. He feels her suspense and when he has finished, he holds out his arms to her. The little family sit down to supper. The father talks of the day’s toil. He is tired, for he is no longer young and the days are long.
“And to think that there are some who pass their lives making merry,” says the mother, bitterly, thinking of Julien. ” I believe that all the world should work,” concludes this maternal socialist.
” Equality is a fine word but it is impossible,” returns the father, ” and if one has the right to choose, let him choose the least arduous labor.”
“Ah! quite true,” says the mother, ironically, ” all the world wants to be an artist.”
But the father has a more cheerful philosophy. Each has his lot in the beautiful life and possession of wealth is not happiness. Happiness is the fireside where one finds a place and, near to those one loves, forgets the evil turns of life. Have they not love and health? He kisses the daughter and seizing the protesting mother, waltzes heavily about the room with her.
When the subject of the letter and Julien’s request come up again, the father tenderly tries to reason with Louise. He reminds her that she has had no experience ; that love is blind. At her age everything is rosy and beautiful and one chooses a husband as one chooses a doll. He tries to tell her that she soon will get over the pain. It is their love for her that makes them so hard. He asks her to read the newspaper aloud to him, hoping thus to divert her thoughts but she breaks down, her voice choked with sobs.
The scene of the second act is laid on the hill of Montmartre. It is five o’clock of an April morning and the workers are beginning their day’s toil. All the sounds of waking Paris are heard. “At this very moment, if you can believe it there are women sleeping in silk,” sighs a wretched woman whose trade is rag picking. .A debonair night-walker accosts some girls with flattering words and, throwing off his cloak, appears garbed as Spring. He jauntily explains that he represents the pleasures of Paris. As he runs off, he knocks over an old rag picker, who tells with weeping how his daughter was tempted away by this same night-walker. An old street-sweeper stops to paint the glories of other days which, through the grayness of the present, look like Paradise.
At last Julien enters with his gay Bohemian friends and speaks of carrying off Louise. He ponders half fear-fully on the step he is about to take and wonders what persuasion he can use with her. The manifold street cries of Paris are heard ; the girls pass chattering on their way to work with occasional glances at the handsome artist. At last Louise comes guarded by her mother. Julien waits until the latter leaves and flies to the girl’s side to entreat her to go with him. She refuses half-heartedly, painting her parents’ misery, and leaves him plunged in deep depression.
The second scene of the act shows the interior of the dressmaker’s shop, with Louise among the sewing-girls. Because she sits pensive and distrait, her associates allude to it, and someone says that her parents are very hard with her that her mother strikes her, that her father treats her as a child; another accuses her of being in love and the rest take the cue and tease her. The sound of someone singing to the guitar is heard and the girls flock to the window. It is Julien and his voice is fraught with emotion. After a while Louise rises to leave, saying that she is ill. The girls watch from the window and a moment later see her go away with Julien.
The lovers go to live in a little house on Montmartre and there the third act finds them. Louise is very happy, although the thought of the sorrow she has left behind her disturbs a little her content. She cannot help remembering that her mother sometimes struck her and that her father treated her like a child. Julien laughs and calls them Mother Routine and Father Prejudice. When she doubts the righteousness of her course, he tells her that everyone has the right to freedom and to love. When the lights begin to twinkle in the city which is spread like a panorama before them, the two burst into jubilant song celebrating their liberty and affection. While they are singing, a crowd of Bohemian friends arrive and crown Louise as the Muse of Montmartre. In the midst of the gaiety the mother appears to tell her that her father is ill and humbly asks her to return for a little while, in order that his grief may not kill him. The thought of the old man whose affection for her she knows so well moves her deeply. The old ragpicker passes by babbling of his lost daughter and Louise, promising her lover that she will return, goes away.
The fourth act is played in the little home in Paris. The parents hope desperately that Louise will be willing to forsake what they consider her dishonor and take up the old life. Her father, still feeble from illness, tries to present to her the parents’ side of the case. He shows her how their love has followed her all the way, from the baby just born, guiding the young steps, greeting the first smile. Fatigue and hardship have been nothing when they have been for her. The child grows; she becomes a pretty girl; gallants flock about her. She is charming. The old parents are proud of their daughter for she is a model of honor and goodness. A stranger passes one day. He lures her away from them and drives the past from her heart. As the father speaks his indignation grows and he curses the robber, Love, who has estranged their daughter. The mother calls Louise to the kitchen on the pretense of needing her aid and pleads with her to take pity on her father, who listens eagerly from the other room. It is evident that Louise cannot promise and the mother mocks bitterly at this free love and, seeing the discussion is fruitless, tells Louise that it is bedtime and bids her say good-night to her father. When she goes up to him he seizes her violently in his arms, covering her face with kisses. Louise disengages herself coldly, and when he speaks her name turns away her eyes.
But is she not his child, he pleads. Did he not once rock her in his arms? Although she struggles gently to get away, he takes her upon his lap and croons to her as to a baby and begs her to remember the happy bygone days. ” Such a good little baby,” he says, and she forces a smile. He speaks of happiness but she reminds him that she must lead her own life and that happiness cannot come in the prison they would make for her. Would they have her abandon all her hopes and break her vows?
Through the window steals the gay invitation of Paris going to play. ” The dear music of the great town,” whispers Louise in delight. She runs to the window and watches the lights bloom out. It brings with added force to her the rapture of returning to Julien, her Prince Charming. She will be no longer the little daughter with the timid, fearful heart but the wife with the heart of flame. She runs to the door but her father bars her passage.
But when she speaks again of her lover, his anguish displays itself in a paroxysm of anger. He throws open the door and in a terrible voice bids her go. She passes out into the night. He looks after her, and his anger fades. ” Louise ” he calls madly, but she has gone too far to hear. Her mother gazes sadly from the window into the darkness. Then the father stumbles again to the door and shakes his fist at the Paris which has stolen his child.
” Louise ” made the sensation of the year in which it was produced. It received extended criticism, and much was found in it besides the surface indication. Charpentier was fortunate in producing it just at the right time, for a few years previously it would not have been understood. It is full of human interest. Charpentier’s own words sum it up. ” The essential point of the drama is the coming together, the clashing in the heart of Louise, of two sentiments, love which binds her to her father, the fear of leaving suffering behind her, and on the other hand, the irresistible longing for liberty, pleasure, and happiness, love, the cry of her being which demands to live the life she wishes.”
The opera is an odd mixture of realism and idealism and possesses decided revolutionary tendencies. Into the orchestration all the street noises of Paris are cleverly worked. Besides the leading characters, all the every-day people of Paris, clad in the garb of the present, walk through the story. Some one has said that the opera has to do with only three characters, Louise, Julien, and the City. But the father and mother are also drawn with consummate skill.