Eternal themes trump scandal in updated French opera in Louise 

Bohemian Rhapsody

Scandal has a half-life that's all too brief. Take Madonna for instance.

Her "Like a Prayer" video was hugely controversial. Religious ecstasy mixed with interracial schtupping led to Pepsi's pulling out of sponsoring Ms. Ciccone's global tour.

Then came forays into transgendered S&M. MTV wouldn't commit to Madonna's "Justify My Love." But what's a few riding crops, silver chains, and black masks compared to the trashy delights of Rock of Love? Or the raw splendor that is YouTube?

Right. And the Scandal-O-Meter amounts to a whopping ... meh.

After French kissing Britney Spears was met with yawns, Madonna knew the end had come. Time to meditate, adopt children, and by the way, from now on, just call me Esther.

Like the Material Girl, Gustave Charpentier's opera Louise had its share of scandal, too. But time hasn't been kind.

After all, the plot centers on Louise, the daugther of traditional working-class parents, who falls in love with the boy next door, and they venture off for bohemian Paris to live a life of free love.

Shocking? Yes. Once upon a time. Now? About as tittilating as Sisqó's "Thong Song."

So Sam Helfrich, who directed last year's Amistad for the Spoleto Festival, decided to skip free love and instead emphasize a more enduring theme: generational conflict.

"Her parents don't approve of her boyfriend," Helfrich says. "Louise and Julien move in together, but we don't stress that. Free love doesn't resonate like it used to."

Meaning, in an age in which men and women cohabitate freely, modern audiences won't find much that's wrong with the young lovers' alternative lifestyle choices. The tension between mother and daughter, daughter and father, however — now that's conflict!

"Her mother is sincere but portrayed in a really negative light," Helfrich says. "All she wants is what's good for her daughter. Even so, their relationship is full of tension."

Her father is less severe, more doting than domineering. But by the end of this sweeping, romantic opera, pater familias is a changed man, and not necessarily for the better.

Louise is about Paris as much as it is about two lovers. The Basilique du Sacré-Coeur, or Sacred Heart, was built around the time Charpentier composed the opera. It was widely perceived at the time as the Church's attempt to reassert power over Paris.

But in the original production of Louise, the cathedral was a symbol of conservatism. It meant something then, but won't to modern American audiences. So Helfrich chose to tailor the metaphor to respresent one half of the Parisian life: the traditional half.

The other half is most represented by Moulin Rouge, the famed cabaret, from which a character called the Noctambulist, or Night Walker, roams the city, seducing its young women. He's the alluring, slightly sinister side of Paris who becomes Louise's nemesis.

"The opera is surprisingly forward-thinking," Helfrich says. "It's a psychological drama with soaring arias, contemporary costumes, and characters that could live here and now."

Sounds great. As long as there are no songs about thongs.


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