This past Saturday night, I took my seat in the first balcony, of the grand Salle Wilfrid Pelletier at Place Des Arts to take in the Opéra de Montréal world première of Les Feluettes, a new opera presented as part of the OperaAmerica conference. I had decided to not read the synopsis beforehand. Why, in the world of opera, do we read synopses to tell us how the story will end? Do we go to movies, or watch TV shows like Game of Thrones, wanting to know how it’s going to end? Why is “spoiler alert” not a term used in opera? I wanted to enter into this experience in a new way.
Of course, the downside of not reading the synopsis was, once the opera began, I had no idea what was going on at first. This was a wonderfully beguiling sensation to have in the opera theatre. The orchestra, in a departure from operatic norm, was positioned at the rear of the stage, behind a scrim. All the stage action took place where the orchestra would normally be, in the pit, which was raised to make it part of the stage proper. This was a great idea, in my opinion, as the orchestra could really play out, knowing that the singers were 50 feet closer to the audience than they, so balance would not be an issue. But, how the heck is conductor Timothy Vernon going to keep it all together?
That all went through my mind in a flash, then I thought, it’s time to start paying attention. The set gave us the inside of a jail, with tall walls of bars surrounding the action, and guards watching everything. A prisoner (Gino Quilico, in superb voice as usual), wanting to confess his sins, has invited the local bishop to come hear his confession. Instead, the tables were turned on Bishop Bilodeau (sung vibrantly by Gordon Gietz) and he was subjected to a play-within-a-play: forced to watch a re-creation of what had put this particular prisoner behind bars many years earlier. In fact, at the beginning, you could have said it was a play-within-a-play-within-a-play, for the prisoners were re-enacting a rehearsal of the religious drama Le Martyre de saint Sebastian, with incidental music of Claude Debussy deftly woven into the musical texture. It was all very surreal, the theatrical equivalent of Ukrainian nesting dolls
And so it began, this elaborate ritual performed by the prisoners, some of whom were playing female characters, with the bishop watching from a chair, and exciting and compelling for us to watch too. The music, by composer Kevin March, grabbed the audience from the beginning with a huge explosion of sound, so much so that people actually applauded right off the bat. Mr. March is very much a singer’s composer, with beautifully constructed lines, dazzling orchestral effects, and huge changes of tempo, texture and style that always felt connected to what we were seeing on the stage.
Mr. March’s composition and orchestration skills are superb, from the startling opening orchestral exclamation through to beautiful lines featuring just the upper strings playing plaintively (and so finely in tune). I loved how varied the orchestral colours were – he made the most our of every player and instrument. At certain moments, when the most beautiful neo-impressionist music was floating by, it would suddenly be shot through by a startlingly dissonant brass chord, obliterating the beauty that came before it, all in service to the onstage drama. I really appreciated how you were never really sure what was going to happen, either musically or onstage (let’s be honest, nobody likes predictability in the theatre). Besides the Debussy quotations and inspiration I heard similarities to Ravel, Ligeti’s avant-garde opera La Danse Macabre, and Ravel’s La Valse, as there were a lot of exhortations of “faites-moi danser” (“dance with me”) and those dances were usually waltzes. The story-within-a-story also made me think of Strauss’ Ariadne Aux Naxos.
One of the things that struck me was that the orchestra seemed like a living, breathing sonic animal. We’ve all heard contemporary music that uses “tape” effects – pre-recorded elements constructed digitally, whether these elements are natural sounds manipulated or digital effects. Here, everything seemed organic, the orchestra at times seemed to wheeze, to grunt, and to wail, whether a sharp outburst from the percussion and low brass, a rolling, roiling low-frequency swell that appeared out of the texture and then disappeared just as quickly, or my favourite, the tutti loud, full-spectrum huge block chords, stacked with dissonances, like an immense steam engine coming to a stop. The orchestra acted as one sonic unit – players and instruments breathing together, brought into clear focus by the laser-like precision of Maestro Vernon.
This was all truly something to behold, and would have been satisfying in a purely new-music context, but the fact that this was all in service of a compelling, heartbreaking love story is what made this experience so powerful. There was so much going on in the orchestra, onstage, and in the skillful and artful vocal writing, that it was an overwhelming number of things to take in. This, I believe, is what a first rate experience of opera theatre should always be – more than the audience can possibly take in.
I was fortunate enough to have a brief conversation with the composer Kevin March at the OperaAmerica reception after the performance. In between my gushings about the fabulosity of his music, he managed to tell me that his teachers (William Bolcom and William Albright) studied with Daruis Milhaud and Olivier Messaien respectively, so obviously March comes by his “Frenchness” quite honestly. There were even some “old-fashioned” orchestral effects, including a rarely-used thunder sheet at the side of the stage (most composers would go to digital sound design for this effect). Other particularly pleasing orchestral events were the low ominous moving gestures that told us something was amiss, how the low strings sometimes used a quick-moving motive that the composer then built his harmonies and melodies upon – a very effective means of achieving both forward motion and drama.
The voices in this production ran the full gamut of male vocal range – from bass to countertenor, with 11 soloists and 19 men in the chorus. Standouts included James Mclennan playing the younger version of Bishop Bilodeau, and Etienne Dupuis and Jean-Michel Richer playing the lovers Simon and Vallier, The composer was very well-served by the glorious singing, and I was amazed at how tight the ensemble was, as the conductor was behind the stage action. But, a skillful and sensitive chef like Mr. Vernon was able to skilfully mix all the musical elements into a delicious sonic feast. He kept everything together beautifully, which I know was very challenging, and made an obviously technically challenging score sound effortless. There was truly glorious and heartfelt playing from the Orchestre Métropolitan.
As I had not read my programme, as the first act went on, it began to seem very long – some judicious editing could tighten up some of the scenes. The libretto, by Michel Marc Bouchard, was based on his popular play of the same name. When the lights finally went up. I was unsure whether the opera was over, and had been a long one-acter, or if we were in intermission. But thankfully, it was intermission, and there was more to come! The second act had a more even pacing, and hardly any parts where I felt the plot was becoming weighed down or too slow. The interjecting of a few comic elements were welcome in that they really gave the work a feeling of believability, with changes of texture, mood and drama that kept the audience engaged.
We always go to new works of opera theatre with our hearts wide open, wishing the best of success to the creative team and the performers. What a wonderful thing it was to be absolutely swept away by a poignant love story, so beautifully created and performed. A new work is always to be celebrated, especially one in French, and certainly major kudos are to be given to Opéra de Montréal and outgoing General Director Pierre Dufour, and also to co-producers Pacific Opera Victoria and CEO Patrick Corrigan and AD Timothy Vernon. I hope this tremendous new work finds its way into the operatic canon, and lives a long life full of heartfelt performances across the globe.