What a beautiful way to end the 2015-2016 season at the Opéra de Montréal. Michel Marc Bouchard’s Les Feluettes, originally a play read for the first time in the mid-1980s, produced as a film (Lilies) in 1996 and now a very moving opera. The author himself is the librettist, with music by composer Kevin March.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story, let me summarize in my own way (i.e. poorly). The piece opens with a Bishop arriving in a prison to hear the confession of a prisoner who has requested his presence explicitly. This won’t be a confession like any other. The two share a history from the same Québec town and the prisoner, with the other inmates, has a story to tell in the form of a play. The Bishop is obliged to stay and watch.
It’s the story of two young men in love (above, in their roles in a play about St. Sebatian), a third who is bitter about his exclusion, a father violently rejecting his son and compelling his marriage to a nastily pretentious Parisienne. Before Simon (Etienne Dupuis) and his new bride leave Roberval for Paris (frustrated in any case by the jealous Bilodeau — yes, the future Bishop — setting fire to the hot air balloon that will transport them part of the way), he goes to Vallier (Jean-Michel Richer) to wish him a happy birthday (and good-bye) and the two end up confessing their love for each other. Vallier’s despairing mother (the cause is her estranged husband, not her son) enlists Vallier’s aid in killing herself and Simon and Vallier wake up in each other’s arms the next day. Bilodeau has arranged the couple’s escape, but is spurned by Simon (he asked Simon for a kiss), and thrown out. Simon and Villiers make a pact to die together in a fire, but Bilodeau saves Simon and deliberately leaves Vallier to die, thinking that Simon will forever think of him (Bilodeau), be it with love or with hatred. The Bishop rises from his chair and confesses his role in saving Simon and leaving Vallier to die, at which point the prisoners, who have been playing all the parts of the play, draw their knives and surround him. Spoiler alert! Is it not always better to leave someone stewing forever in his own self-disappointment than giving him the sweet swift exit of death?
You might want to see the opera, the movie or the play if you want to catch the story in all its subtleties.
So how was my opera experience? As I began this post, I said it was a beautiful way to end the season and it most certainly was. When we entered the Salle Wilfrid Pelletier at Place des Arts, the first surprise was visible: the orchestra up on the stage at the back, behind the prison bars of the set. How delightful to see them (my seats are parterre, so I have rarely been able to see the orchestra during the performance). The set itself was spare and adaptable, with many panels of prison bars that could move around as needed, and then small bits of furniture that the players (perhaps the chorus?) could move about as needed. Some really innovative use of flashlights in the beginning, and the Opéra de Montréal continues to deploy its multimedia skills very expertly. A sheet obscures the orchestra, but serves for the projection of the image of the school, the idea of flames, a vague forest. Sometimes clear, sometimes figurative, always effective. Brought to earth, the sheet continues as a barren ground, a shared bed, the flames of the fateful fire…and when it disappears, it is like a CGI effect, swift and clean. Amazing multiple use of a simple object. There was real fire, too — a lighter, but a couple of other fire effects that made me wonder how they were achieved, as well as how they were controlled! The string holding the balloon was like a fuse at one point, while at another, Simon seemed to have fire coming from both his hands.
Another little note about the staging, in particular the scene in which Simon’s father punishes him for the kiss he has heard about (above). Total drama, and very effective at communicating that sort of homophobic punishment that was likely all too common in the deeply religious, deeply traditional family of the past. Well, we hope it is the past here, if not everywhere in the world. Such a perverted expression of control rather than love, but it was depicted very effectively indeed on stage.
Music? Oh yes, the music was lovely. I was a little worried about how the story might lend itself to being sung, but when it was over, I really had no doubts left. After some really toughing duets and choral numbers backing them up, I’m almost left wondering how the story can be told without them. There is nothing like an entwined duet between lovers to really paint the picture of their emotions. I’ve been a fan of Etienne Dupuis for some time, but now I am equally sold on Jean-Michel Richer. They sang beautifully together and beautifully apart as well. And I wouldn’t be fulfilling expectations of me as a gay man if my heart hadn’t fluttered at the duet in the bathtub with a naked Vallier and a shirtless Simon. Beyond the thrill of the costuming, it was really all about the singing and the haunting words of that poem set to music that returns many times during the opera. A little bonus on the occasion of the engagement party for Simon and Lydie-Anne, with some traditional Québécois music and an excellent clogging performance by Félix Monette-Dubeau. A taste of the music:
The costumes were very inventive. The Bishop looked real in his outfit, and the prisoners playing the many roles in the play wore costumes made of elements that prisoners might have available to them — grey wool socks piled as fancy hats, blankets and prison garb gathered into bustles and frills. I’m pretty sure that the conductor of the orchestra was also wearing a prison outfit, complete with number on the back, which is just as clever as it is unexpected. Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn’t chortle at the vicious comment by Lydie-Anne to Vallier’s mother (paraphrasing): what a beautiful dress, it’s so rare to find any examples that style still being worn. Ouch! Believe me, there were more reasons to not shed any tears for her being left by Simon, first for Vallier and then, presumably, for prison. I don’t think I would be voluntarily putting myself in any social situation with her anytime soon.
It’s a moving story adapted lovingly and expertly to the operatic stage. And like the author says at the end of the video above, I am very glad to say that, for this world première, I was there for the first performance. Don’t miss the chance to see it.
Opéra de Montréal — 24th, 26th, 28th May 2016
Pacific Opera Victoria — 20th, 22nd, 28th, 30th April 2017