Saturday night’s world premiere of Les Feluettes was an accomplishment long in the making. A co-commission by Opéra de Montréal and Pacific Opera Victoria, the opera was conceived by Australian composer Kevin March, who saw the English movie adaptation, Lilies, over a decade ago.
Set in a men’s prison in the 1950s and 1910s, the story is popular in Quebec through the play by Michel Marc Bouchard. Bishop Jean Bilodeau (tenor Gordon Gietz) visits the prison to hear the last confession of his boyhood friend Simon Doucet, played by baritone Gino Quilico. In a Man of La Mancha-style construction, the all-Canadian, all-male cast of inmates stage an opera-within-an-opera for the Bishop, who must reckon with his past.
Deception, obsession, betrayal, and murder—Bouchard’s story has all of the trappings of a great opera. Old Simon forces Bilodeau to watch on as his younger self (tenor James McLennan) meddles in the burgeoning romantic relationship between young Simon (baritone Étienne Dupuis) and Vallier (tenor Jean-Michel Richer).
The up-and-coming Dupuis commanded in his role, whether in the bruising fits of anger in his solos or the effusive dignity of his love duets with Richer. The acting between the two leading men was uncommonly believable for opera. For those worried, the love scene in the second act that warranted a disclaimer for nudity was practically chaste.
Special mention to countertenor Daniel Cabena, who played an affable Mademoiselle Lydie-Anne de Rozier, Simon’s secondary love interest, as well as baritone Aaron St. Clair Nicholson, Vallier’s mother the Comtesse Marie-Laure de Tilly, who stole every scene.
March’s eclectic and cinematic score was as if, as my opera-going partner stated, Debussy and Britten met in Hollywood. This was March’s first time writing a full-length opera, and the score held together quite well, only getting better as the night progressed.
Staging elements added to the realization except for the placement of the orchestra upstage behind bars. Conductor Timothy Vernon had no eye contact with the singers on stage, they were expected to watch him; he was filmed and projected on two monitors mounted above the audience on either side of the auditorium. Turning what is traditionally a two-way communication between conductor and performers into a one-way exercise in trust added unnecessary bumps in the production that may or may not be attributable to opening-night jitters. Fortunately, issues of balance and togetherness were mostly worked out by the second act.
It may be daring to write a full-length new opera these days, but Les Feluettes hit on all of the right notes. Aside from its subject matter, which has taken a long time to hit the operatic main stage, the opera could have easily been part of the canon for the last 30 years. As CBC reported earlier this week, there was some pushback from several Opéra de Montréal subscribers over the homosexual content, but in the end it is truly their loss to miss this tasteful and stirring production.
You still have time to see for yourself. Three presentations remain, May 24, 26 and 28 at 7:30 p.m. in Salle Wilfrid Pellieter, Place des Arts. The production will travel to Victoria, BC in April 2017.
La Scena has a limited number of fundraising tickets available for May 28. Visit www.lascena.ca