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Review: Les Feluettes a powerful tale well sung

As much as we all love the classics, there’s nothing quite like the thrill of seeing a new opera.
Tenor Jean-Michel Richer, left, as Vallier, and baritone Aaron St. Clair Nicholson as his mother, Countess de Tilly, in Les Feluettes by Pacific Opera Victoria at the Royal Theatre. You donÕt have to puzzle out the plotÕs intricacies to get the main thrust.

As much as we all love the classics, there’s nothing quite like the thrill of seeing a new opera. On Thursday night, Pacific Opera Victoria presented the western Canadian première of Les Feluettes, a full-length opera by composer Kevin March and librettist Michel Marc Bouchard.

This is a fine, well-sung production, benefiting from the do-or-die (or rather, do and die) romanticism of Bouchard’s tale of forbidden love and March’s score, which frames the melodrama with verve, intelligence and sensitivity.

One caution — it’s a good idea to study the synopsis of Les Feluettes before seeing it, as the story is incredibly complex.

Here’s a summary of the opera, sung in French with English surtitles. In 1952, a bishop is summoned to a prison where he believes he’ll hear a man’s last confession. It’s a ruse.

The inmates force the bishop to witness a show re-enacting events from 40 years earlier, which include a performance of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s play The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian.

So right off, we have a play-within-a-play-within-an-opera. Adding to the fun — by necessity, some of the inmates are in drag. There is, for instance, the glorious countertenor Daniel Cabena, who plays Mademoiselle Lydie-Anne de Rozier, a French woman who arrives via hot-air balloon. Some characters are shared between two singers. There is a young and old Simon Doucet (a passionate lover and sometime arsonist) and a young and old Jean Bilodeau (the bishop).

Adding to the complexity, some of the central characters’ motivations seem murky. For example (spoiler alert), handsome Count Vallier de Tilly, who’s in love with Simon, ultimately strangles his dotty mother. I wasn’t quite sure why, as she seemed rather nice.

Les Feluettes is based on Bouchard’s 1987 play of the same title. The play, later made into a film, is a classic of French Canadian theatre.

It’s less known in English-speaking Canada. One might assume that Quebec audiences are familiar with the story (Les Feluettes had its acclaimed world première in Montreal last year), so perhaps the opera’s byzantine story seemed less mystifying to them. That said, one need not puzzle out the plot’s intricacies to get the main thrust of this opera. The essential story of Simon and Vallier’s doomed love is incredibly powerful and transcends all.

Bouchard interweaves their romance with the story of Saint Sebastian, who was famously pierced by a volley of arrows and is something of a homoerotic icon. We’ve all seen the paintings of this hunky martyr bristling with arrow shafts. Simon and Vallier’s fate shares something with Saint Sebastian’s — their powerful attraction to one another is mixed with pain and self-sacrifice. Associating their love affair with Saint Sebastian, a Christian martyr persecuted by the Romans, makes sense. The lovers face their own persecution; Les Feluettes is set against the backdrop of the Catholic church and society’s repressive attitude toward homosexuality in the early to mid-20th century.

In this opera, love and death are paired relentlessly and repeatedly. Bouchard makes such an intertwining powerful, poetic and unforgettable.

At the beginning, Vallier, acting out the play, speaks of unleashing arrows upon St. Sebastian’s naked body. Simon responds: “Yes, my archers, that is my wish. It will be beautiful!” Near the opera’s end, Simon, again employing the text of St. Sebastian’s story, declares to Vallier: “If you ever loved me, may I know the measure of your love through the agony of your arrows.”

Les Feluettes pivots on the poles of pain and passion. Although deeply romantic, the story is rooted in an elemental primitivism. There’s an eye-popping flogging scene (stage director Serge Denoncourt has done a terrific job throughout) in which the entire chorus pummels the stage with belts.

The suppression of Simon’s same-sex love finds an outlet in pyromania; some scenes are lit by real flames.

March’s music is eclectic. There are waltzes, old-timey songs, French-Canadian folk tunes and quotes from Scott Joplin and Claude Debussy. The Victoria Symphony is augmented by a folk-style fiddler and an accordionist. Yet although varied, the score is far from a dog’s breakfast — there is cohesion throughout.

The music is cinematic, sometimes reminiscent of mid-century movie soundtracks. At times, perhaps because of its forthright vitality and use of folk elements, the sound is reminiscent of Aaron Copland.

Sometimes, March seems content to merely support Bouchard’s vision. Sometimes, the music propels the action, as during the climactic scene — replete with exultant brass and swelling strings — in which Simon and Vallier fully declare their love (for this one, Vallier is tastefully nude in a metal bathtub).

Thursday night’s performance offered fine singing. Powerful baritone Etienne Dupuis as the young Simon was a standout; tenor Jean-Michel Richer ably brought out Vallier’s Dionysian beauty; baritone Aaron St. Clair Nicholson successfully conveyed the affable nuttiness of Vallier’s mother, Countess de Tilly.

The creative team (which includes conductor Timothy Vernon wearing a prison costume like the cast) has overseen the production with confidence and panache. The set and costumes are drab.

The set’s central feature is proscenium-spanning prison bars. The large cast —10 singers and a chorus — mostly wears grey.

Yet each scene possesses a singular beauty. One of the most memorable sequences is a glittering night sky in which a simple helium balloon transforms into the moon.

What: Les Feluettes

Where: Royal Theatre

When: Continues tonight, April 28, 30

Rating: Four stars (out of five)

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