Maestro Jean Périsson Leads Arlene Saunders, John Alexander, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni and Sona Cervena in Impressive Performance of Charpentier’s “Louise” – San Francisco Opera, October 13, 1967

A week after attending my first ever performance of Verdi’s “Macbeth”, and five days after a Sunday matinee performance of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” (my second of the season), I returned to the War Memorial Opera House for San Francisco Opera’s opening performance of Charpentier’s “Louise”.

The opera is French composer Gustave Charpentier’s ode to Paris and to the sexual awakening of one of city’s young women, the opera’s title character. “Louise” was the vehicle for the San Francisco Opera debuts of Ohio soprano Arlene Saunders and Mississippi tenor John Alexander. It was also the occasion for the return to San Francisco Opera for the first time in several seasons of the famous Italian bass, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni.

 Arlene Saunders’ Louise

Arlene Saunders enlisted an expressive lyric soprano for her portrayal of a Parisian seamstress, torn between a romantic attraction to her neighbor Julien, and her loyalty to her Mother and Father who disapproved of that attraction.

While embracing the joyful hedonism of her lover and his Parisian neighborhood, Saunders’ Louise struggled with guilt for defying her parents who wished to govern her behavior.

[Below: edited image,based on a Robert Cahen photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]


Early in the opera Louise leaves her home for Julien’s and becomes bedazzled by her love affair with Julien and with Paris’ Montmartre neighborhood. Louise’s joy is described in the opera’s most famous aria Depuis le jour.  Saunders sang the aria exquisitely, receiving an extended ovation at aria’s end from the appreciative audience.

Prior to her San Francisco Opera debut, Saunders credits included the Hamburg Staatsoper and the New York City Opera, the site of a previous Saunders triumph as Louise. Later in San Francisco Opera’s 1967 season she would sing Marguerite in Gounod’s “Faust” and Freia in Wagner’s “Das Rheingold”.

John Alexander’s Julien

Tenor John Alexander succcessfully assayed the role of Julien, who provides Louise with both physical and spiritual love and a connection with this vibrant community in which the couple resides.

[Below: John Alexander as Julien; edited image of a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

Alexander was vocally resplendent, performing the aria Depuis longtemps j’habitais cette chambre stylishly. Alexander’s lyric tenor was perfrectly suited to Charpentier’s elegant musical composition of the opera’s poetic French libretto.

[Below: John Alexander (left) is Julien and Audrey Saunders (right) is Louise; edited image, based on a Dennis Galloway photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

This would be the last time I would see Alexander perform for the San Francisco Opera’s for five seasons. He returned in 1972 for his final role with the company, Pollione to Joan Sutherland’s Norma in a new production of Bellini’s most famous opera.

[Below: Audrey Saunders (left) is Louise and John Alexander (right) is Julien; edited image, based on a Dennis Galloway photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

Nicola Rossi-Lemeni’s Father

The famous Italian basso, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, was back with the San Francisco Opera after an absence of more than a dozen seasons. He performed the unsympathetic role of Louise’s possessive Father. Much of the role is expositional, the Father recalling his joy in holding Louise as an infant and small child and exuding dismay that she does not want to remain with him. The character’s arc ends in anger, with the Father condemning Paris for enticing his daughter’s departure.

[Below Louise (Audrey Saunders, left), persuaded to return home to attend to her supposedly ill Father (Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, right) is uncomortable as her Father relates how he would hold her in his arms as an infant; edited image, based on a Robert Cahen photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Rossi-Lemeni’s role has a rather unsavory emphasis on the Father physically embracing his daughter, as he tries to persuade her to remain with him rather than live her own life with the man whom she has chosen to marry. Despite this, in the four San Francisco Opera seasons that Louise has been performed (1947, 1955, 1967 and 1999) the role has been sung not only by superstar bass Rossi-Lemeni, but by two other superstar basses – Ezio Pinza (1947) and Samuel Ramey (1999).

[Below: Louise (Arlene Saunders, left) joining her Father (Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, right) endures his complaints about her spending any time with her lover; edited image, based on a Dennis Galloway photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

I would see Rossi-Lemeni one more time, as Don Basilio in a 1968 revival of Gunther Rennert’s production of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”, his last performances with the San Francisco Opera.

Sona Cervena’s Mother and Other Cast Members

Czech mezzo-soprano Sona Cervena performed the role of Louise’s Mother authoritatively. Like Louise’s Father, the Mother was hostile to the lifestyles of the Parisians that their daughter admired. Desptie this, she promised Julien that, when Louise had tended to her Father’s supposed illness, Louise could return to him.

[Below Sona Cervena as the Mother; edited image, based on a Robert Cahen photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Much of Cervena’s  operatic career was based in the “behind the iron curtain” Berlin Staatsoper her moving to the West earlier in the decade. For San Francisco Opera’s 1965 and 1966 seasons Cervena performed character roles with distinction. (I have reported on eight of these performances on previous posts in this series.)

[Below: a scene with the seamstresses; edited image, based of a Dennis Galloway photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

The large supporting cast included dozens of roles of different workers and artisans in Julien’s neighborhood, as well as the seamstresses that worked with the Mother.

Principal singers in other operas from earlier in the season include “The Magic Flute’s”, Tamino, Stuart Burrows [Historical Performances: Geraint Evans, Stuart Burrows, Jane Marsh Welcome “The Magic Flute” into the San Francisco Opera repertory – September 23, 1967 and October 8, 1967] who performed the Noctambulist and the King of Fools.

“La Gioconda’s” Alvise, Ara Berberian [Historical Performances: “La Gioconda” with Leyla Gencer, Renato Cioni, Grace Bumbry and Maureen Forrester – San Francisco Opera, October 1, 1967], played a Ragpicker.

Maestro Jean Périsson and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus  

French Maestro Jean Périsson led the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus in an authentically French performance of the opera.  This was especially evident opera’s in the operas most famous passages (among the greatest in French opera) that take place in the opening scenes of Act III.

[Below: Maestro Jean Périsson; edited image of an historical photograph.]

This was Périsson’s second season with San Francisco Opera. He had conducted  the previous season’s convincing performances of operas by Berlioz [Historical Performances: Crespin, Vickers in first American production of Berlioz’ “Les Troyens” – San Francisco Opera, November 12, 1966] and Bizet [Historical Performances: An Exciting “Carmen” from Grace Bumbry and Jon Vickers – San Francisco Opera, November 27, 1966.]

Director Louis Erlo and the 1947 Scenic Design

This was the third collaboration between Maestro Périsson and French director Louis Erlo,following the Berlioz and Gounod operas hyperlinked above. Erlo had also directed “Macbeth” [“Historical Performances”: Chester Ludgin, Grace Bumbry in Verdi’s “Macbeth” – San Francisco Opera, October 6, 1967].

Erlo used the scenic design creatged for the “Louise” company debut performances in 1947.

[Below: the Act II sets for the Mother’s seamstress workshop; edited image, based on a youtube screenshot.]


Notably, Erlo skillfully staged the complexities of the Montmartre scenes in which dozens of operatic artists appear.

[Below: the Act III sets for Julien’s garden in the Montmartre, with a view of downtown Paris in the distance; edited image of a youtube screenshot.]

Having enjoyed my first “Louise”, I would return to the War Memorial Opera House the nexxt evening for my first ever performance of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” and two days later for a Sunday matinee performance of Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier”.