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Louise Returns in First Class Production

San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House
09/13/1999 -  and16, 18, 22*, 26, 29, September, and 2, October 1999
Gustave Charpentier: Louise
Jerry Hadley (Julien), Renée Fleming (Louise), Felicity Palmer (Her Mother), Samuel Ramey (Her Father), Tammy Jenkins (a young rag picker), Jay Hunter Morris (a noctambulist), Judith Christin (a street sweeper), Armando Gama (a sculptor), Alfredo Daza (a songwriter), Richard Walker (a student), Norman Shankle (a poet), James Westman (First philosopher), John Ames (Second philosopher), Peggy Kriha Dye (an errand girl)
Orchestra and Chorus of the San Francisco Opera, Patrick Summers, conductor
Lotfi Mansouri, Stage Director

When General Director Lotfi Mansouri puts his heart into a project, he has the ability to bring a production to life as well as an director. And in the San Francisco Opera’s new production of Charpentier’s Louise, Mansouri clearly cared deeply for the opera and the production. Mansouri assembled a team of designers and performers well suited to illuminate the delicate charms of this intimate, domestic drama and bring it to vibrant life.

Of course it helped that he has a leading lady that exudes charisma as well as vocal splendor. In this first outing as Louise, soprano Renée Fleming proves once again why she is one of today’s operatic superstars. Her lush, distinctive tone and technical mastery of her instrument coupled with superb musicianship and a winning stage presence all contributed greatly to both her personal success and the success of the performance as a whole.

Fleming captures the youthful insecurities as well as Louise’s passionate determination to make for a constantly involving, interesting character at the central of this admittedly dated story of a young girl trapped in an opressive family life and yearning for the romance and independence offered her by both her lover and the city of Paris itself.

The presence and influence of Paris is a strong one in Louise and the stage designs by Thierry Bosquet underscore the influence with transparent walls for the interior scenes so that the Parisian backdrop is always present. The barren walls of Louise’s home, where she lives with her mother and father, emphasize her harsh life there, void of much warmth or comfort. Paris and in particular the third act set when she is living with her lover, Julien, is the romantic world she desires. Full of flowers and a view of the city, it stands in stark contrast to the world she left behind.

As Julien, tenor Jerry Hadley embodies the carefree bohemian life of an artist (in this case a poet) in Paris. Complete with a beard and floppy hat, his insouciance serves a a lure to Louise, oppressed as she is by stern, unwielding parents. Vocally, Hadley was on rough ground, his light tenor pushed beyond its capacity, full of spotty pitch and scratchy, ungainly tone. Up against Fleming’s vocal velvet, his sound was more like burlap.

But his was the only troublesome spot in the otherwise superb cast. Felicity Palmer as Louise’s mother brought all of her considerable vocal and dramatic gifts to bear on a role that can easily fall into caricature. Palmer’s ability to show the deeper motivation behind the mother’s harsh criticism of her daughter gave this character depth and heighten the sense of her anguish at the end.

Samuel Ramey’s gifts too were put to good use in this production. His firm, elegant bass as sonorous as ever, Ramey proved himself equally capable of meeting the demands of this simple, human-scaled creation as he is in the more extroverted roles for which he is justly famous. In Louise Ramey maintains the same sort of charismatic presence on stage, but skillfully turns it inward to create a richly drawn, beautifully sung performance.

The huge supporting cast aslo included many fine individual performances including those by Tammy Jenkins as the young ragpicker, Jay Hunter Morris as the noctambulist, Marc Laho as the King of Fools, and Judith Christin as the street sweeper.

At the helm of this production, Patrick Summers captured the score’s fragile charms and made them blossom. His ability to make Charpentier’s score pulse with life while allowing the singers room to create and shape their performances proves once again why Summers is such an asset to the San Francisco Opera.

San Francisco Opera has given this new production of Louise the sort of energy and attention that is the goal of every production. And the payoff, a beautifully staging and a strong cast, resulted in a rare opera that was also a rare treat.

Kelly Snyder



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