Every summer in the small spa town of Buxton, the sun shines over the verdant Pavilion Gardens adjacent to the Opera House. This green and flowering landscape, with its rippling ponds and leafy trees in the spacious shadow of Frank Matcham’s highest opera house in England, is hardly the ideal atmosphere in which to prepare for the squalor and emotional agony of Gustave Charpentier’s Louise. Premiered in Paris in 1900, it might be considered the French answer to La bohème, first performed four years earlier in 1896, and peddles the same bohemian principals of truth, beauty, love and following your heart despite oppression, which in Louise take the form of overbearing parents.

Madeleine Pierard
Madeleine Pierard

The plot is easily condensed: Louise, a seamstress, lives with her parents. She is in love with Julian, an artist who lives opposite. The match is forbidden by Louise’s mother, and after some rather typical teenage angst, there follows a great deal of Parisian bill and coo between Louise and Julian, before they run away to Montmartre. At the request of her mother, Louise returns home to look after her dying father, more arguing ensues and Louise runs off for a second time. Louise’s father curses the city, and the curtain falls. Louise is long, and at almost three and a half hours with only a 20 minute interval, not a lot happens – it was considered in overheard conversation as we stretched our legs, descending the balcony staircase that “it could be at least an hour shorter”. A wise observation.

The performance was generally excellent. Artistic Director Stephen Barlow crafted a performance that moved as best it could, despite the drawbacks of some rather labored libretto (also by Charpentier), and a series of musical styles that would make it difficult for the blind listener to pinpoint a composer – Debussy, Wagner, Puccini, Chabrier, it’s all there. Even moments of Delius, and some harmonic tensions that made me think of Howard Shore’s music for The Silence of the Lambs! Bursts of choral cabaret sweetened an otherwise tame musical gumbo of curious chords, melody and music that never really exceeds ‘nice’.

In the title role, Madeleine Pierard was wonderful. A rich, warm, secure voice with a tone as golden as her evening dress, she sang with an attention to words and mood that was exemplary. In concert performances there’s nothing to help you – no sets, no costumes, no props – just a nice frock and your voice, and Pierard gave Louise’s demanding, occasionally petulant nature a terrific interpretation. Her lover Julian was sung by tenor Adrian Dwyer, who navigated an especially difficult tessitura that was forever pushing the vocal line up. To sing as he did, maintaining consistent projection and diction, without suffering vocal fatigue, must have been extraordinarily taxing. The musical material and words for these lovers is at best not very interesting, but they made an excellent attempt to make something of it. As Mother, Susan Bickley, a Buxton Festival regular, was as always excellent in characterisation and beautiful singing. Completing the principal quartet, bass-baritone Michael Druiett as Father, sang with a great deal of insight into the words, and aside from Adrian Thompson of the chorus, his on-the-spot acting elevated his performance by suggesting mood and attitude more clearly that others.

The Buxton Festival Chorus, consisting principally of students, recent graduates and a few pros, were very good, and took Louise’s numerous minor roles. Of these it was tenor Adrian Thompson that excelled the most in humour, and gave a very entertaining, highly nuanced and characterised performance, wringing every available bit of drama out of the words and music with excellent diction and singing. Collectively, the men appeared more confident, and I would have enjoyed a little more projection and dramatic delivery from the ladies.

In the dry, unforgiving acoustic of the Buxton Opera House, the Northern Chamber Orchestra played excellently, and as the opera evidently calls for a much larger string sound that the Buxton orchestra pit can accommodate, they made a valiant effort that truly paid off. With many exposed solos in the woodwind, brass, and harp, the collective effort resulted in a well balanced, entertaining performance.

Aside from the excellent playing and singing year in, year out, one of the chief joys of the Buxton Festival programme that certainly keeps me going back, is the wonderful opportunity to hear rare repertoire in stunning surroundings, and this is an enterprise that must continue to be supported, not least for the excellent opportunities it provides us as enthusiasts, and the experience for young singers.

One thing I missed – once upon a time in Buxton, the opera’s start was heralded by a horn fanfare on the balcony, but this evening the only music al fresco was the gentle chink of champagne flutes, accompanied by a bell that summoned us to Paris, and Louise’s tenement.