Music institutions should continue to focus, more than ever in these dire conditions, on innovative programming. This is the lesson that could be learned from the online double bill presented by Opéra de Montréal, putting side by side Francis Poulenc’s powerful one-act La Voix humaine and the world premiere of L'hiver attend beaucoup de moi, conceived by Laurence Jobidon (music) and Pascale St-Onge (libretto).

Vanessa Croome (Léa) and Florence Bourget (Madeleine) in <i>L'hiver attend beaucoup de moi</i> © Yves Renaud
Vanessa Croome (Léa) and Florence Bourget (Madeleine) in L'hiver attend beaucoup de moi
© Yves Renaud

To create links between the two panels of the evening’s diptych, director Solène Paré and set designer Étienne René-Contant altered La Voix humaine’s circumstances. They oddly moved the action from an elegant apartment to a backyard, asking the unnamed protagonist, sporting an elegant fur scarf, to navigate several plain steps in order to grab from an undefined little room the hidden phone so essential for the overall drama. Interestingly enough though, in Paré’s view, many of Madame’s mood swings and reminiscences seemed to be detached from the conversation with her former lover, that you could never see or hear and is supposed to be on the other end of the phone line. One could possibly imagine that everything is just happening in the women’s obsessed mind. In the original libretto, Jean Cocteau suggests that Madame might use the phone cord – “I have the wire around my neck. I have your voice around my neck” – to attempt another suicide. Diminishing furthermore the phone’s role as a surrogate for her lover, Paré has, at the very end, Madame laying down in the backyard, in front of a cartoonish car whose lights she just turned on, perhaps a sign of reconciliation with fate as much as one of desperation.

France Bellemare in <i>La Voix humaine</i> © Yves Renaud
France Bellemare in La Voix humaine
© Yves Renaud

La Voix humaine needs an outstanding actress to perform the role of the opera’s unstable single character and to convey, at the same time, what is happening in a conversation hidden from the public’s ears. The libretto’s colloquial language needs her to be able to master the intricacies of spoken French more than those of the language’s lyric diction. With her powerful and eloquent instrument, soprano France Bellemare was impressive, both vocally and theatrically, suggesting again that a young singer is much more suited to the role than a fading diva. In her portrayal of a woman trying to keep alive a relationship she very well knows is already dead, Bellemare easily swayed between hope and despair, confidence and angst. Music director and pianist Esther Gonthier was an excellent collaborator, letting the piano fill, as an orchestra would, the entire space, suggesting what the invisible and annoyed Monsieur might have said, and promoting all those wonderfully unsettling harmonies reminiscent of Poulenc’s previous opera, Dialogues des Carmélites.

The musical language in L'hiver attend beaucoup de moi appears to be surprisingly close to Poulenc’s idiom, even if it lacks the latter’s special poetic character. Occasionally, it seems to wander aimlessly, but the score is pleasant to listen to. The libretto is equally ambiguous. It features two young women, descending from the same car we have seen before, somewhere in the bare, wintery landscape of northern Québec. They have recently met and decided to travel together, searching for something undefined (“a door that opens only for us”) that might be akin to the Faustian Ewig-Weibliche. Similar to Poulenc’s character, they have a complicated relationship with their past, regarding it nostalgically while trying to detach themselves from its claws. You only slowly and indirectly find out, in a text full of unnecessary meanders and divagations, that Léa, the younger one (soprano Vanessa Croome), is pregnant and was involved in an abusive relation and that Madeleine (mezzo Florence Bourget) has probably lost her baby child.

Vanessa Croome (Léa) and Florence Bourget (Madeleine) in <i>L'hiver attend beaucoup de moi</i> © Yves Renaud
Vanessa Croome (Léa) and Florence Bourget (Madeleine) in L'hiver attend beaucoup de moi
© Yves Renaud

The singers, both associated with the Opéra de Montréal Atelier Lyrique, the company’s training program, delved with enthusiasm into a score asking for technical prowess and challenging their ability to cover a significant span. Bourget expressed well Madeleine’s bitterness and determination while Croome brought to life Léa’s confusion and need for support. The performance benefited from music director Jennifer Szeto’s attentive piano accompaniment, letting the voices that rarely compete for attention bloom and infusing musical color into a bleak psychological and physical landscape. A first attempt by the two Québécois creators, Laurence Jobidon and Pascale St-Onge, to tackle the exigencies of the operatic genre is a qualified success. They should pursue in their endeavor.


This performance was reviewed from Opéra de Montréal's video stream

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