Jean-Michel Richer and Zachary Read in Les Feluettes. Photo by Nanc Price for Edmonton Opera
Edmonton Opera’s current production of Les Feluettes, a Canadian opera in French based on the play of the same name by Michel Marc Bouchard, has one more performance, this Friday October 28th. Bouchard is also the author of the play Tom at the Farm, of which I saw a performance at the University of Alberta last season, directed by Brenley Charkow.
When I first heard of Les Feluettes and read a plot synopsis, I was dubious. I liked the idea of increased LGBTQ representation in opera, as in any performance art, but it sounded like a very sad story. I get a little tired of stories in which same-sex relationships or LGBTQ characters are inevitably doomed, because for a long time that’s how most LGBTQ characters were portrayed. Maybe I’m past being desperate for representation and on to the stage of wanting a variety of representation, some of it admirable and some of it happy.
However, I attended a performance of Les Feluettes despite my misgivings, and I’m very glad I did. The story does have a sad ending with emotional resonance, but not unusually so for opera. And the aesthetics of the production are just gorgeous. I’m reconciled partly because it’s good art, and partly because the tragic outcome isn’t just due to the young gay students Simon and Vallier being unable to pursue their relationship in the 1912 Roman Catholic culture of a small northern Québec town, but also due to the jealous and guilt-ridden actions of one particular classmate, who is tormented by his own attraction to Simon. One might even look to the story of this opera as an illustration of why the Alberta government is currently in conflict with separate school authorities over curricular objectives on sexuality. Young people who are taught to fear, hate, or deny their own sexuality and that of others can do terrible harm to themselves or others.
The opera, like the play on which it’s based, has a “play within a play” structure (and in fact, there’s actually a play within the play within the play.). As the flashback scenes are performed by a group of prisoners for the visiting Bishop (Gordon Gietz), all the performers are male, including the chorus and supernumeraries. Costumes appear as if they could have been constructed out of prison uniforms, draperies, and other available materials by the prisoners for the purpose of acting out this story. Female characters in the flashbacks are played by male prisoners, and not in an inherently ridiculous way. Baritone Dominique Côté is the mother somewhat out of touch with reality, played with kindness and pathos. Countertenor Daniel Cabena is convincing as the young Lydie-Anne, Simon’s fiancée. The young prisoners who portray the young Simon and the young Vallier (Zachary Read and Jean-Michel Richer) have very strong chemistry and voices that sound good together.
The plot synopsis is available on line and in the printed program. I would have similar concerns about inviting people to a performance of Romeo and Juliet if they were not prepared for the outcome because I always find stories of the unnecessary deaths of young people upsetting. But if you are willing to watch a sad opera, you should consider going to see this one on Friday. Some tickets are still available here.