By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Love and death, jealousy and revenge, crime and punishment, repression and liberation, visions of fiery hell and fantastical apparitions who float down into the New World from the Old … there is nothing tentative, nothing cautious or small about Les Feluettes.
It was maybe only a matter of time till Michel Marc Bouchard’s strange and wonderful 1987 play, Lilies in English, became an opera. After all, it’s invited the word “operatic” virtually since birth — for the extravagant hothouse poetry of Bouchard’s language, the grand passions of its gay characters, the florid tragedy of its Romeo and Romeo love story.
The only thing Les Feluettes was missing? Music.
Well, as it happens….
No longer. It wouldn’t be quite right to say that Bouchard’s play, which boldly presses its theatrical luck in every way, has been reborn as an opera. It’s more that in opera Les Feluettes has at last found a form big and crazy enough to contain it.
Years in the making, Les Feluettes premiered in a 2016 production shared by Opéra de Montréal and Pacific Opera Victoria. And in this new Canadian opera, by Bouchard and the composer Kevin March, Edmonton Opera has stepped up and out of its usual comfort zone, and found a gutsy and compelling contemporary opener for its season. Really, you should try and catch its remaining performance Friday at the Jube.
Kevin March’s lyrical, compulsively dramatic score, which samples styles from a variety of sources, wraps itself around and through the love story that explodes onstage. Singing not only doesn’t seem at all out of place in the world of Les Feluettes, it’s a natural outcome, judging by Serge Denancourt’s production (directed for this revival by Jacques Lemay). The orchestra, conducted by Guiseppe Pietraroia, is a fully committed partner.
The lethal confrontation between its doomed, but transcendent, gay lovers and an oppressive church authority is framed as a play within a play. In 1952 Quebec, prison inmates have ambushed a bishop who arrives to hear the last confession of an old classmate of his, who’s been a prisoner for 40 years. The outraged cleric is forced to watch the prisoners’ re-enactment of the events of 1912, in which he is the deeply complicit holder of a guilty secret. They’re set in motion at rehearsals for a church college production of Gabriel D’Annunzio’s The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. That saint, you may recall, was fatally pierced by arrows from his own archers, an erotically charged demise if ever there was one.
Desire surges into a fateful kiss; art surges into life: Simon, who plays Sebastian, falls deeply in love with Vallier, who plays the chief archer. And this same-sex love fuels the persecuting fury (and duplicity) of church and society.
The chemistry between Zachary Read’s young Simon and Jean-Michel Richer as Count Vallier is ardent, deeply committed, beautiful to watch and bravely set forth onstage. Intimate nude scenes aren’t exactly common currency on opera stages. There have been “gay operas” before now, versions of Brokeback Mountain and Angels in America among them. But “gay opera” just seems a little reductive as a descriptive here: it’s a big, emotional up-against-it love story, and its characters have a terrible price to pay for love.
The prisoners, all male, take on every part, including the Parisienne (Daniel Cabena) who arrives by hot-air balloon in Roberval in 1912 — a woman for Simon to marry — and Villier’s aristocratic mama (Dominque Côté), dreaming of her absent husband and the restoration of the old order across the sea. Both singers deliver captivating performances in their double roles.
To me, the singing in some of the smaller parts seemed variable. And onlookers, like the captured bishop, weren’t always attentive in the acting. But what didn’t falter was the stagecraft, in which even the most intimate events have witnesses and voyeurs. It is dangerous to love under conditions of surveillance.
Guillaume Lord’s design is dominated by a prison grill that cages both the body and the spirit. Julie Basse’s lighting (derived from Martin Labrecque’s original design), with projections by Gabriel Coutu-Dumont, is eerie and dramatic. The effects orchestrated by these collaborators are effected by human agency, simple and striking: May I single out a violent, and tender, scene on a frozen Quebec lake? Ice turns to fire. There’s an elemental Canadian feel to the piece that grabs your heart.
It’s a highly unusual piece for an opera company that has relied on more familiar terrain. It’s of the theatre, a good and accessible thing. And the music makes it expandable, able to fill the most outsized, heightened, melodramatic turns of Bouchard’s story. Don’t miss.
Les Feluettes runs Friday at the Jubilee Auditorium. Tickets: edmontonopera.com