France Bellemare in La voix humaine (© Yves Renaud)
It’s been nine months since we have been able to sit in a theatre and watch an Opéra de Montréal production. The OdM has returned with an exquisite double-bill which seemed made for our pandemic times.
This production was originally slated to appear last spring just as the city/province/country/world went into lockdown. It was then rescheduled for October and once again had to be delayed. The OdM made the decision to film and broadcast it, becoming available on Thursday night, November 5th and remaining so until midnight November 19th. For a very reasonable ticket price you can re-watch it as many times as you choose.
The production is a combination of something old and something new. The old is La voix humaine, the 1959 chamber opera by Francis Poulenc with the libretto by Jean Cocteau. The opera is based on Cocteau’s original 1930 play. OK, not that old by opera standards, but the one-person one-act opera is set in a bygone era and the OdM chose to keep the period backdrop.
France Bellemare in La voix humaine (© Yves Renaud)
The set by Étienne René-Contant is sparse, suggestive, and unadorned: flat empty walls, a few steps leading to an open door frame, and a model mock-up of a 1930s car. By unadorned, I mean really unadorned. There is no texture to the walls and the car is purposely made to look like a model constructed out of unpainted wood. The colours are uniform and matte, leaving Martin Sirois’s lighting design to play across and over it, changing with the mood and emotions of the main character. The suggestive quality of the mise-en-scène serves the mentality of a woman in the grips of obsession, unable to see reality as her emotions swarm over her environment. Its openness through stark simplicity is perhaps a nod to Cocteau’s surrealistic underpinnings.
The role of La Femme (The Woman) is beautifully and powerfully portrayed by France Bellemare who is no stranger to OdM audiences, and whose career led to her Metropolitan Opera debut a few years back. La Femme is waiting for a telephone call from her lover. They are breaking up, she suspects him of cheating, and is unwilling or unable to let go. Much of the opera takes place on the phone but we never hear her lover, only surmise what is said by the woman’s responses. She devolves into suicidal anxiety. The original opera suggests she will kill herself with the phone cord, but here she turns the car engine on and lies in front of it, her last sobbing words, “Je t’aime”.
Originally scored for orchestra, this production utilizes piano accompaniment, consummately played by the musical director, Esther Gonthier. It adds a salon quality to the work, an intimacy that suggests the woman’s solitary and imprisoned feelings. The film begins with a starkly lit shot of Gonthier playing while the set reveals itself in shadows in front of her. It ends by returning to Gonthier as the car headlights pierce the darkness.
Vanessa Croome and Florence Bourget in L’hiver attend beaucoup de moi (© Yves Renaud)
And we transition to what is new in the double-bill with another spotlit shot of a pianist, this time Jennifer Szeto, the musical director of the next opera. The car from the Poulenc set appears but in a new location and time: today in Quebec’s frosty and desolate north. Two woman emerge from the darkness and enter the contemporary world of L’hiver attend beaucoup de moi, a new opera by composer Laurence Jobidon and librettist Pascale St-Onge.
Unlike the unnamed woman in La voix humaine, these women have names. Like La Femme, they are caught in the anxiety of abusive domestic relationships. Madeleine is leading pregnant Léa to safety. Léa is fleeing male domestic violence, ever present by the bruise and cut on her face. They’ve stopped in the middle of wintry nowhere and she fears Madeleine has tricked her. Léa can’t go back. Madeleine has promised to take her to the last house at the end of the last road where she will be safe. But by stopping off road, we learn that this is the spot where Madeleine had been abandoned, where she gave birth and lost her child: part of her victimization through domestic violence and abuse. Madeleine doesn’t want to leave, she wants Léa to stay with her and presumably freeze to death. “Nothing is for us beyond this snow.” They both hear the murmurings of the earth and of the women like them who have been down this road before. They see (we don’t) the spectre of Madeleine’s child running in the snow. But Léa will not leave Madeleine behind. Their strength to live on will be the “storm that ends winter”. The closing camera shot again pans back to reveal Szeto at the piano, a metatheatrical moment that links the two operas.
Florence Bourget and Vanessa Croome in L’hiver attend beaucoup de moi (© Yves Renaud)
Jobidon’s music is atmospheric, featuring much dissonance, but the dissonance matches the emotions and stories of the women. There is also a tonality that grounds the poetic and translucent text by St-Onge. Szeto’s playing is robust and delicate as needed. Florence Bourget as Madeleine and Vanessa Croome as Léa are riveting and compelling. This isn’t an opera of action. It’s an opera of pausing in flight to contemplate memory and fear and hope. OdM describes it as a “road opera”, and many road stories are about stopping and taking stock of what’s around you.
The score allows Bourget and Croome to sing in duet again and again. So often, I find, contemporary opera neglects duets and trios, concentrating on through-composed dialogue, solo passages, and choral moments. Singing together lifts us out of the plot and into the realm of “female solidarity and resilience”, as the OdM synopsis states about the opera. Bourget and Croome sing and act superbly throughout the piece, but these duet moments gave me goosebumps.
L’hiver attend beaucoup de moi is exactly what opera needs. It’s bold, contemporary, poetic, political, feminist, theatrical, well-executed, and not afraid of traditionalists.
Florence Bourget in L’hiver attend beaucoup de moi (© Yves Renaud)
The two operas together appear to have been made for our times. Of course, these operas were composed and the production planned before the pandemic, but OdM’s choices are prescient. Both operas deal with confinement, whether in our homes (La Femme tethered by her phone cord to her room) or the open safety of the last house on the last road north (an expansive cage to keep others out). Both operas call up the fear and danger of contagion: obsession and domestic violence as viruses. And both operas confront our reactions and choices to our situation: do we descend into depression or join hands for a livable future? All the characters seek connection from their solitary suffering. I don’t know but it sounds like COVID 2020 to me.
Much credit for this success must go to Solène Paré, the stage director for both operas. Her thoughtful concepts and economic blocking bring out the inner substance of both works. Panning camera shots revealing the stage—the outer edges of the set—give a feeling that these stories are in a box, another form of confinement or freedom, depending on the moment.
Of course, the question arises: does this replace going to the theatre? OdM made the choice to record, edit, and broadcast this production as a film, rather than take the risk of streaming a live event. Perhaps OdM is one of the few companies in Montreal that has the budget and clout to deal with the technology and hiccups of live stream. Maybe they will try in the future. However, OdM’s choice of format for this production seems a winner to me. Perhaps some version of it can be included in future seasons when and if we return to “normal”. It could be done with a small audience, live streamed or filmed. It can appeal to the young and/or digitally-fettered, and the price is affordable. It cannot completely replace being in the opera house—living beings in communion with art and other breathing beings—but it certainly is worth experiencing.
Opéra de Montréal presents
La voix humaine + L’hiver attend beaucoup de moi
Streaming online from November 5th – 19th, 2020
$20 per access, ticket available at:
- REVIEW | Return of the OdM: Double-bill Eerily Prescient for Pandemic Times - November 7, 2020
- Review: Illuminating violence gets under my skin in OdM’s Written on Skin - January 26, 2020
- Review: OdM’s ‘Lucia’ a Triumph in the Traditional - November 10, 2019