Creativity within Restrictions – A review of Les Feluettes (Edmonton Opera)

by Gabrielle Johnson

The idea of a modern opera is a cause for some trepidation. Unlike reproductions of classical operas, more modern works have yet to stand the test of time, and a scrutinizing audience whose members span generations. However, Les Feluettes holds up fairly well.

The opera, performed by many of the original Montréalais cast, is sung in French with English surtitles. Certain quirks are lost in translation (the countess Marie-Laure de Tilly’s pretentious use of the formal vous with her own son, for instance), but the English version is overall accurate, capturing both the heart of the drama and the liveliness of the poetry.

The story, following the doomed romance of the two young men Simon Doucet (Zachary Read) and the Count Vallier de Tilly (Jean-Michel Richer) is sincere, albeit melodramatic, with religious allusion and imagery that was at times poignant, though heavy-handed, and at other moments merely clumsy. Likewise, the choice to tell a story retroactively through a play within the opera, as opposed to via an extended flashback, was a choice to create an opera with one hand tied behind its back.

The prison setting limited both costume and stage design, reducing the opera from what might have been a feast for the eyes to a mere ration’s worth of colour and texture. The visuals were composed almost entirely of monochromatic gray, but were redeemed by creative details. Lighting brought a little more colour, as well as a dynamism to the piece that interplayed with segments of the set; a fabric backdrop was cleverly used to create the illusion of movement and to fill the otherwise ashen stage with vibrant hues at key moments. The costumes, while consisting nearly entirely of the same dull gray, were multifariously designed, evoking the sense of being cobbled together by inmates. They managed to impress – the dresses were beautifully layered, period-appropriate, and fashionable. Moreover, the understated tint of the cloth allowed for the punctuating effect of the luxurious scarlet robe worn by Vallier upon his entrance into the engagement party of Simon and Lydie-Anne de Rozier (Daniel Cabena), the man he loves and the woman his lover intends to marry.

The prison setting unfortunately affects the sounds as much as the sights, as the all-male cast flattens the range of the music (soprano lovers will not find much to appreciate in Les Feluettes) and radically reduces the variety of the musical pairings. Duets were performed between singers of similar ranges, those of the lower register (bass and bass-baritone) not being involved in these.

However, many of the solos were exquisite. The introduction of a love-letter written for Simon by Vallier, is an aria that is at once decadent and sweet, resolving into what feels like a romantic lullaby. The eclecticism of this aria is but a foretaste of the curious score. Like the costumes the music seems cobbled together, yet seamless. The composer, Kevin March, has created a work that delightfully blends traditional French Canadian folk sounds (most notably the piece that begins the second act, which makes use of tap dance and spoons) and segments from Debussey’s Le Martyre de saint Sébastien, which is intermittently quoted. Also notable is the intriguing use of percussion, such as the sudden interjection of rolling timpani at the entrance of a more menacing character, or the interspersion of the cracking of a whip adding accent within the melody, after Simon receives a lashing from his alcoholic father. March, it seems, is a composer who knows the value of both sound and silence, using stillness to increase tension, or add effect. The opera ends not with soaring song, but with spoken word, and silence, leaving the audience bearing the full weight of what has unraveled on the stage.

Most valuable of all, however, was the stellar performance of the cast, which included Daniel Cabena (Lydie-Anne de Rozier) in an aerial and effortless countertenor, Dominique Côté as the countess Marie-Laure de Tilly who, though he may have elicited some laughter upon his entrance in drag, soon won over the gigglers by creating a well-rounded (and slightly mad) character, Zachary Read and James McLennan as the younger iterations of the prisoner Simon Doucet and the bishop Bilodeau, and Jean-Michel Richer who is introduced with some pomp as the young count Vallier de Tilly and who lives up to the almost supernatural expectation this presentation evokes. Though the sometimes overwrought plot may leave something to be desired (this is opera, after all), the quality performance of the cast satisfies.

Les Feluettes is showing at the Jubilee Auditorium on October 21, 24, and 27.

Photography courtesy of Nanc Price. 

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