Spoleto Festival USA took a major gamble in selecting Gustave Charpentier's "Louise" as its principal operatic offering this year. It is neither a box-office favorite, like "La Boheme" or "Carmen," nor is it a newly discovered gem that will bring critics and musical scholars from around the world to Charleston. No, self-respecting operaphiles all know "Louise," or think they do,

although it has been my experience that few listeners will recognize anything beyond the heroine's celebrated Act III aria or, just maybe, her father's aching, nostalgic "lullaby," sung to a grown daughter who is on the verge of leaving her family forever.

There are further complications. Although "Louise" essentially is a chamber opera — most of the best music and all of the best drama is allotted to four indelible figures — the prodigal Charpentier nevertheless filled the stage with no fewer than forty (!) named characters, as well as a full chorus, all to the accompaniment of a large orchestra. In short, any impresario who wants to produce "Louise" might as well kiss that year's budget goodbye.

And yet there it was, on Friday night at Galliard Municipal Auditorium: a full staging of "Louise," undertaken during a period of near-unprecedented financial insecurity throughout the artistic community, in a year when the Baltimore Opera filed for bankruptcy, the New York City Opera is facing a dire future and even the mighty Met has tinkered with its programming in order to deal with new fiscal realities.

Was it worth it? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! In one magnificent evening, Spoleto presented the United States operatic debut of a radiant new soprano, Stefania Dovhan; proved once again that Emmanuel Villaume is among the most sensitive and intelligent opera conductors on the planet; and made an overwhelming case for the continued potency of "Louise" as timeless musical theater.

Like Johann Pachelbel, Charpentier (1860-1956) is known almost exclusively for a single work, but, unlike Pachelbel, Charpentier wrote very little else in his long life, which stretched on for more than a half century after the 1900 premiere of "Louise." He seems to have depleted his inspiration with this opera, in much the same fashion as one of those novelists who produces a single great book, inevitably autobiographical, and then, having said what needed to be said, retires into quietude.

True, Charpentier wrote a sequel to "Louise," entitled "Julien," in 1913 — no less a figure than Enrico Caruso sang the American premiere — but it generally was judged substandard and never is performed.

That's fine. "Louise" would be a proud legacy for anybody.

Even more than most operas, "Louise" benefits from the introduction of projected, line-by-line translations of the words the characters sing as they are performing. Had "Louise" been presented at Spoleto a quarter-century ago, those spectators who were not absolutely fluent in French would have had to read through a libretto or plot summary in advance and then, in the theater, use their memories to try and make sense of whatever was taking place onstage.

It cannot be said too often: Titles have changed everything. Now that we have this technology, it makes no more sense to watch "Louise" without translation than it would to rent "The Seventh Seal" or "Wild Strawberries" and insist upon following Ingmar Bergman's films only in the original Swedish. I urge dubious readers who have not been to an opera since the introduction of what are generally called "supertitles" in 1983 (and there are more of a few of them out there) to give the art form another try. This "Louise," which left some viewers in tears, would make a terrific starting point.

"Louise" clearly came from the heart: Charpentier, who wrote both music and words for the opera, told soprano Mary Garden that the story was based on a specific woman he had known, loved and lost. The libretto is shameless propaganda for free love, anarchy, poetry, youth and the city of Paris, redeemed by the curious, dewy-eyed innocence with which it conveys its would-be-shocking messages — that, and the genuine compassion Charpentier clearly feels not only for the rebellious heroine but for her confused and rigid father, absolutely loving and absolutely wrong.

Dovhan was a bewitching Louise, singing with a fresh, sweet, opulent tenderness that sometimes called the young Mirella Freni to mind. If "Depuis le jour," her big moment at the beginning of Act III, began rather tentatively, Dovhan settled in thereafter and brought both polite, "good-girl" shyness and frank sexual exhilaration to an aria that demands both.

Louis Otey, as her father, sang with the dark chocolate timbre we admire in the recordings of French basses of the past (Paul Aumonier or Jean-Francois Delmas, say) and proved a splendidly multi-dimensional dramatic actor, as well.

I was less happy with Sergey Kunaev's portrayal of Julien: In Act I, he displayed a marked tendency to shout; and indeed, throughout the evening, one often had the sense that he was declaiming his lines rather than letting them come out naturally. I suspect he would make a stronger impression in other material.

Barbara Dever, as Louise's mother, brought a stout, welcome humor to the part (what a Katisha she'd make in "The Mikado") yet was equally at home in the scenes of conflict, now cajoling, now hard as nails.

There was meticulous support from Anne-Carolyn Bird, David Cangelosi, Andriana Chuchman, Marjorie Elinor Dix, Stephen Morscheck and the Westminster Choir, all of whom deserve more praise than I have room to give them here. Sam Helfrich's direction was sure, unified and inventive, while Andrew Cavanaugh Holland's sets managed to convey provincial drabness and urban allure, a difficult combination to pull off.

Finally there was Villaume, who coaxed prismatic playing from the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, who supported dozens of singers all but unerringly in difficult and complicated music, who never seemed forced in fast passages nor stagnant in slow ones. One had the sense that Villaume knew this opera intimately and that he loved and suffered for every note. I cannot imagine a more sweeping, intricate and altogether persuasive reading and I will never forget this "Louise."

"Louise" will be repeated Monday, May 31 and June 6.