Bouchard/March: Les Feluettes, April, 2017

POV Keynotes Newsletter

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  • What Theatre Can Do: Robert Holliston shares his impressions from the world première of Les Feluettes in Montreal last May.


 

What Theatre Can Do

It is rare enough in the theatre, rarer still in the opera house, that everything comes together perfectly and we understand: this is what the theatre can do! The kind of performance that, in the words of Dame Edith Evans, makes one walk several blocks in the wrong direction.

Thus I was fortunate to be in the audience at Place des Arts on May 28, 2016, to see the final performance of Opéra de Montréal's co-production (with POV) of Les Feluettes. Many years before, I had rented, watched, and enjoyed the film version of Lilies, the play upon which this opera is based. Although this award-winning movie is (probably) still available for rental at Pic-a-flic, seeing it is no more a prerequisite for understanding Kevin March's and Michel Marc Bouchard's opera than reading Beaumarchais or Dumas fils to understanding Mozart or Verdi. Like Figaro and Traviata, Les Feluettes stands very confidently on its own as a work of art.

Everything about the performance was captivating and engrossing – ultimately deeply moving – and the audience responded ecstatically (the only word). As the applause began to subside, I chatted briefly with the lady seated beside me, who wondered how a story so drenched in Catholicism would go over in our Protestant western culture. I assured her that we had our fair share of hang-ups.

First and foremost – to me, at least – Les Feluettes is a story about gay male love at a time when – and in a place where – it was met with revulsion and hostility. True, there have been other forbidden loves, and many of them have been treated dramatically in plays, novels, musicals, and operas, but each of these resonates within society in its own way; the love between Simon Doucet and Count Vallier de Tilly is very definitely between two men and does not need to stand in for or "symbolize" anything else.

Start with specifics, advised critic John Simon, with the personal and the intimate. If this is well enough imagined and felt, you can trust it to become universal by itself. Both composer and librettist have paid astute attention to detail, to specifics, to the personal and the intimate, throughout Les Feluettes. Thus we connect with the characters as people, believe readily in their dramatic situation, and care deeply what happens to them. Assuming (safely, I think) that the majority of the audience that night in Montreal were not gay men, it is clear that Les Feluettes did, indeed, become universal.

Composer Kevin March has explained his eclectic musical choices: the score contains quotes from or stylistic allusions to Debussy's incidental music to Le Martyre de St. Sebastien, – this is actually a crucial plot point – American ragtime, French belle-époque-style cabaret, traditional Québecoise folk music, and even a 19th-century Napoleonic anthem. Each of these choices illuminates something about the time and place of the story, and even the personalities and thoughts of the characters.

And of course they are individual dramatic elements in March's richly imaginative score, which is beautiful, evocative, and dramatically apt at every turn. And rich also in colour: the composer's orchestration always seems to find exactly the right colour for what is being sung, thought of, felt by the characters.

(I'd say that these characters were played by a dream cast, except that these singing actors exceeded my dreams. No Victoria operagoer needs to be told that the entire ensemble was led with deep commitment and expertise by Timothy Vernon. Everything about the production - including direction, sets, lighting, costumes - seemed dedicated to one thing only: the telling, in music, of this great story.)

Les Feluettes left me tearful and emotionally shattered, but eager to experience it again at the Royal. That night I walked many blocks in the wrong direction, all the while aware that this is what theatre can do!

Robert Holliston


 

The Play's the Thing: Les Feluettes and the Power of Theatre

Les Feluettes, the opera that blew audiences away at its world première last spring in Montreal, is a romantic drama set in a prison, where inmates dramatize a decades-old tragedy to draw out the truth of a devastating love triangle.

Like the play on which it is based, Les Feluettes embodies the power of theatre – as an art form that can mesmerize and thrill an audience; as a litmus test for truth; and as a way to express the inexpressible, to re-create memory, to be at once artificial and startlingly real.

The story opens in 1952 with the arrival of Bishop Bilodeau to hear the confession of his old classmate Simon Doucet, who has been an inmate for 40 years. Instead, Simon and his fellow prisoners force the bishop to watch as they put on a theatrical performance depicting the events that led to Simon's incarceration.

Scene from Montreal world première of Les Feluettes. Photo: Yves Renaud

The play within the play begins with a flashback to Roberval College, Quebec, in 1912, as young Simon and Vallier de Tilly rehearse a school production of Le Martyre de saint Sébastien (The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian). Simon plays Sebastian, who has been sentenced by the Roman Emperor Diocletian to be executed by his own archers, one of whom is Sanaé, played by Vallier. Sebastian urges Sanaé to prove his love – to go ahead and kill him so that he may be reborn. As they rehearse the ardent words, the boys' acting becomes more real, and they kiss. They are interrupted by young Bilodeau who accuses them of depravity. In the ensuing quarrel, Simon forces a kiss on Bilodeau just as Vallier's mother enters and applauds, thinking she has witnessed a daringly well-acted scene from the play.

That kiss has devastating consequences. Simon receives a severe beating from his father, after which he plunges into a more "suitable" relationship with Lydie-Anne de Rozier, a wealthy French woman on holiday. Even as Simon and Vallier find their way back to one another, reiterating the words of Sebastian and Sanaé to express their love, Bilodeau's jealous, unadmitted longing for Simon sets in motion the inevitable tragedy.

The opera is based on Michel Marc Bouchard's dazzling 1987 play Les Feluettes: La Répétition d'un drame romantique. The English – Lilies, or The Revival of a Romantic Drama – like many translations, both adds and subtracts meaning.

Feluettes is a specifically Quebecois term indicating frail or delicate things. As the play's translator Linda Gaboriau explains:

'Feluette' is a word someone of an older generation might use, a Quebec distortion of the word 'fluet' or 'fluette' which means frail or delicate. A mother might say it about a consumptive child, but it could mean effeminate or effete. lt isn't necessarily pejorative. ... I went back to the play ... and saw how many Biblical allusions there were.
I began thinking of lilies of the field, the 'fleur de lys', and lilies as the flower of royalty ... The play has a lot of the flamboyance of Oscar Wilde, who created a cult for lilies. Artists ... have drawn sexual imagery from lilies. It seemed to capture the same kind of allusive meaning as 'feluette'.

In both play and opera, Feluette is the nickname given to Vallier by Bilodeau; it is translated as Lily-white (and, in the play, lily-livered sissy). Yet Vallier is arguably the character with the most inner strength: he works himself to exhaustion to support his mother and himself and he is clear, always, about his own feelings for Simon.

The subtitle of the play hints at its hall-of-mirrors structure. Répétition can refer to the reiteration of an experience; the revival of a theatrical production (the play within the play that dramatizes the events of 1912); and the rehearsal of a play (Le Martyre de saint Sébastien, the inner play within the play within the play).

These nested dramas create a mise en abyme that draws the characters into an abyss of discovery and memory.

The play within the play, the inmates' re-enactment of the past, recalls Hamlet's use of theatre to reveal Claudius' guilt (The play's the thing Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king). SImon's dramatic re-enactment is intended to elicit confession, mete out justice, and unearth truth.

The innermost play, Le Martyre, becomes a recursive theme, its text a counterpoint weaving through the opera, giving Simon and Vallier the words to uncover and express their love.


 

St. Sebastian

Detail of painting of Saint Sebastian by Guido Reni, c.1617-1619. Museo del Prado

St. Sebastian is one of the more picturesque early Christian saints, instantly recognizable in art as a beautiful youth palely loitering against a tree or pillar, pierced with arrows.

Legend has it that he was a member of the elite Praetorian Guard in the late 3rd Century, a secret Christian who used his position as a Roman soldier to help Christians and to convert more to the cause. When the Emperor Diocletian eventually found out, he reproached Sebastian for his ingratitude and had him shot by archers. Miraculously, Sebastian survived. But rather than play it safe, he proceeded to harangue Diocletian for his persecution of Christians. Not surprisingly, Diocletian didn't take this well. Sebastian was martyred a second time, this time by being beaten to death.

Detail of mosaic depicting St. Sebastian, c.682. Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, RomaSebastian is the patron saint of soldiers and athletes, long beloved by artists: he found his way into paintings by Botticelli, Rubens, El Greco, Titian, Dali, and many others. Sebastian was one of the few religiously acceptable subjects for depiction of the male nude; he provided opportunities for pious homoeroticism and has long been a gay icon – this despite the fact that the real Sebastian is more likely to have been a burly, middle-aged bruiser. The earliest images of him – mosaics dating from the 6th and 7th centuries (long after his death, c. 288) – show him fully dressed, with a grey beard, and nary an arrow in sight.


 

Le Martyre de St. Sébastien

Le Martyre de St. Sébastien is a neoromantic play by the Italian Gabriele D'Annunzio, with incidental music by Claude Debussy. The play, which premiered in Paris in 1911, was a multimedia extravaganza with chorus, orchestra, ballet, mime, recitation, singing, and elaborate sets and costumes. It was Wagnerian in length, going on for some five hours of fevered, overwrought poetry, not unlike Oscar Wilde's more lurid outpourings in Salome (which made a decent opera).

Debussy's contribution to the project was about an hour of music, and it is the work's saving grace. His contract stipulated that the play could never be performed without his music. Fortunately, the music is almost always performed without the play, either in various drastically shortened versions or in a set of Symphonic Fragments that Debussy had the foresight to extract from the score in 1912, and some of which is quoted in Les Feluettes.

Costume for Ida Rubinstein in Le martyre de Saint Sébastien. Designer: Léon BakstD'Annunzio wrote the part of St. Sebastian for the notorious Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein, who has been called the Lady Gaga of her era. She was a Russian dancer and producer, renowned for her beauty and enormous wealth and notorious for her provocative performances, her androgynous physique, and her bisexual lifestyle. After two years with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, she left to start her own ballet company. She commissioned several works, including Ravel's Boléro. Her 1910 performance in Paris as Schéhérazade with the Ballets Russes reportedly caused D'Annunzio to declare, Here are the legs of St. Sebastian, for which I have been searching in vain all these years!

After the première of Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, the writer Marcel Proust wrote to Reynaldo Hahn: I found the legs of Mme Rubinstein ... sublime. That was about it for me. I found the piece rather boring apart from the odd moment.

Martyre makes the most of the homoerotic appeal of Sebastian, conflating him with the pagan figure of Adonis, but that's not the main reason it was banned by the Church before it even opened. D'Annunzio's writing was already scandalous, but Martyre was the last straw for the Vatican. On May 8, 1911, just two weeks before the première, the Vatican placed on its Index of Prohibited Books all of D'Annunzio's plays, short stories, and novels. This was followed almost immediately by a statement from the Archbishop of Paris forbidding Catholics from attending the production, on pain of excommunication.

Surprisingly, the problem wasn't so much the homoerotic and sadomasochistic elements as the fact that St. Sebastian was played by a woman – and, what was more shocking, a Jewish woman (who also happened to be bisexual).

In Les Feluettes, it is noteworthy that a priest in rural 1912 Quebec has his students perform Le Martyre. Father St. Michel may live in the boonies (Roberval is 250 km north of Quebec City), but he is clearly au courant with the latest European theatrical sensation, and it is surprisingly bold of him to program this forbidden work.


 

Gender Bending in Les Feluettes

Countertenor Daniel Cabena and Baritone Aaron St. Clair Nicholson in Les Feluettes. Men playing men playing women. Photo: Yves RenaudWhile Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien created a scandal when a woman played the male saint in the play, today's opera audiences would barely raise an eyebrow at such a casting choice.

Operagoers are used to mezzo sopranos performing trouser roles, and we're growing accustomed to the strange beauty of a countertenor voice in a masculine leading role. Les Feluettes is merely a new – but intriguing – chapter in opera's long tradition of gender bending.

The entire cast is male (reasonable given that the opera is set in a men's prison and a boys' college). The two female roles are taken by a countertenor and a baritone; each plays a man playing a woman, adding another labyrinthine twist to this fascinating and dramatic exploration of the intricacies of love and theatre.

Daniel Cabena, the countertenor who plays Lydie-Anne de Rozier in the production, commented on this in an interview with Catherine Doyle of Opera With Pearls

I'd say that gender fluidity is an important and beautiful feature of opera's heritage, a tradition which, after all, reflects and explores all the dimensions of human experience. I also feel that that fluidity is a gift to performers, that it provides a unique opportunity through which deeply and freely to explore themselves and the characters that they are embodying. So, that's all by way of saying two things: that cross-dressing in opera is not "a big deal," that it is entirely part of the richness of the tradition; and that – not at all conversely! – it's a very "big deal," a gift to performers and a celebration of the variety and fluidity of the human experience, which opera so beautifully celebrates. I should also say, though, for the sake of precision, that in Les Feluettes I'm not exactly playing the role of a woman but, rather, that of a male prisoner who's playing a woman in a play-within-a-play. I think that that extra layer adds a fascinating dimension to the discussion of gender roles, while at the same time rendering it moot!

Maureen Woodall


 

The Artists of Les Feluettes

When I saw the film version of Lilies ... it struck me that ... I was hearing a libretto that hadn't yet been set to music, I was watching an opera for which the music had not yet been written.
Kevin March

Michel Marc Bouchard's 1987 play Les Feluettes has been produced all over the world and was made into a Genie-award winning movie, Lilies.

POV's Artistic Director Timothy Vernon had long felt that the play cried out to be made into an opera, and he dreamed of one day commissioning it. Composer Kevin March came to the same conclusion 15 years ago when he saw the film, was struck by its rich operatic texture, sought out the playwright, and began working informally with him. In 2011, Opéra de Montréal Artistic Director Michel Beaulac approached Bouchard about a dream project: commissioning an opera based on Les Feluettes. Beaulac learned shortly afterward that POV had the same vision.

In a happy convergence, these separate dreams came together. In 2012, POV and Opéra de Montréal established a partnership to co-commision and co-produce the new opera. Four years later, Les Feluettes made its sensational world première in Montreal. And now we are thrilled to present its second staging, in Victoria.

Michel Marc Bouchard's more than 20 plays have won multiple awards; they have been translated into 15 languages and produced all over the world; six have been adapted for the screen. Les Feluettes is Bouchard's first opera libretto; he is now working on a second, an adaptation of his play Christine, la reine-garçon, for the Canadian Opera Company.

Kevin March's works have been performed in North America, Australia, and Europe. He studied with William Bolcom, William Albright, and Michael Daugherty.

While Kevin has completed three chamber operas, Les Feluettes is his first full-scale opera. He has called its musical style postmodern eclecticism. One reviewer said it was as if Debussy and Britten met in Hollywood. The score draws out the rich strands of the libretto – reflecting it with humour, bittersweet lushness, shimmering romanticism, and striking percussion effects. It flirts with atonality, yet also falls into nostalgic forms of waltz and down-home French-Canadian folk.

And yes, Virginia, there are earworms to be found. This is one 21st century opera that may compel you to leave the theatre humming.

French-Canadian folk music brings a light-hearted moment to Les Feluettes in this scene from the Montreal world première. Photo: Yves Renaud

Timothy Vernon stewarded development of the opera, serving as musical dramaturge and conducting the world première in Montreal. (He and l'Orchestre Métropolitain were suitably costumed in prison stripes as they performed at the back of the large stage at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier). Timothy also conducts the Victoria Symphony in POV's performances, but from the pit, dressed impeccably in his conductor's attire.

Director Serge Denoncourt knows the play well, having directed it twice before: in 2002 at Montreal's Espace Go (winning the People's Choice Masque and Masque for Best Production) and in 2005 in English, at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre. He was eager to take on the challenge of revisiting the work to direct it as an opera.

The set is by the distinguished designer Guillaume Lord, with evocative lighting by Martin Labrecque and projections by Gabriel Coutu-Dumont.

François Barbeau, who had created the costumes for the 2002 production of the play at Espace Go, also designed the costumes for the opera. He died in January, 2016, after an illustrious 50-year career.

POV Chorus Master and Associate Conductor Giuseppe Pietraroia is directing the POV Chorus. He will also conduct Les Feluettes when it receives its third staging, at Edmonton Opera in October, 2017. That production will be directed by Jacques Lemay, who appears in the Victoria performances as the dancer.

Most of the original cast from the Montreal première are joining us for the staging in Victoria. Étienne Dupuis and Jean-Michel Richer reprise their roles as young Simon and Vallier; Gino Quilico is Old Simon, with Gordon Gietz as Bishop Bilodeau and James McLennan as Bilodeau's younger self. Aaron St. Clair Nicholson is the Countess, with Daniel Cabena as Lydie-Anne. Claude Grenier is Simon's father Timothée, and Patrick Mallette is Baron de Hüe. Making his debut in the role of Father St. Michel is Normand Richard.

Maureen Woodall


 

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  Jean Michel Richer and Étienne Dupuis as Vallier and Simon in the Montreal world première of Les Feluettes. Photo: Yves Renaud.

Jean Michel Richer and Étienne Dupuis as Vallier and Simon in the Montreal world première of Les Feluettes. Photo: Yves Renaud.