New operas with sufficient force and good fortune to become fully staged productions by a company of note are rare beasts. Those that live on beyond a handful of performances are an endangered species, which makes Les Feluettes something precious indeed. The world première demonstrated that this work has the musical and dramatic appeal to continue well beyond Opéra de Montréal's four performances, and those presented by co-producer Pacific Opera Victoria in 2017.

Étienne Dupuis (Simon Doucet) © Yves Renaud
Étienne Dupuis (Simon Doucet)
© Yves Renaud

Based on Michel Marc Bouchard's 1987 play of the same name (also the basis for the 1996 film Lilies), Les Feluettes references an old Québec term for men considered weak or effeminate. It is set in a prison of this Canadian province, where Bishop Bilodeau has come to hear the last confession of Simon, a longtime inmate. Instead, the bishop is forced to watch the prisoners re-enact the circumstances in which his former college acquaintance Simon was incarcerated.

Their play reveals the forbidden love between Simon and Vallier as the young men rehearse Debussy's musical Le Martyre de saint Sébastien in 1912. Jeune Bilodeau threatens to expose them, but this is unwittingly achieved by Vallier's mother. The cowed Simon becomes engaged to visiting Parisian Lydie-Anne, who reveals that Vallier's long-absent aristocratic French father has forsaken his family. The abandoned countess seeks death, and the rekindled love between her son and Simon ends tragically through Bilodeau's jealous interference.

These scenes are portrayed by male prisoners (in a play within a play, which briefly has a third layer of illusion during the rehearsal scenes), so Les Feluettes' cast is entirely male. Men playing women, as well as brief nudity and scenes of passion presented with uncommon conviction – by operatic standards – deliver a certain frisson to audiences accustomed to the art form's staid conventions.

Gordon Gietz (Monseigneur Bilodeau) © Yves Renaud
Gordon Gietz (Monseigneur Bilodeau)
© Yves Renaud

Refreshingly, the cast was also an all-Canadian affair, ably led by Étienne Dupuis (young Simon) and Jean-Michel Richer (Vallier). Dupuis, an Opéra de Montréal regular, impressed once again with his rich baritone and capable acting, revealing a character caught between his feelings and society's expectations. Richer's lithe tenor is the cornerstone of Vallier's more poetic soul.

Aaron St Clair Nicholson (the Countess) and Daniel Cabena (Lydie-Anne) also impressed, as the mincing femininity expected of male prisoners interpreting female characters was balanced with sincere grace. The performance of baritone St Clair Nicholson was arguably the night's most compelling, as his comically delusional character evolved into one of pathos: the Countess is emotionally fragile but also unexpectedly wise, recognising and accepting her son's love for Simon.

The entire cast, including the Opéra de Montréal Chorus, sang well, though the effects of amplification were occasionally apparent. Cabena's countertenor was rendered unpleasantly tinny at times, and his duet with Dupuis was sadly marred. Bouchard's beautiful yet uncomplicated French libretto worked to their advantage, however, as did Kevin March's score.

An American, now Australian-based composer (and therefore the production's sole non-Canadian), March has taken an eclectic approach that emphasises the opera's layered timelines and characterisations, as well as Québec's diverse cultural influences. Celtic folk, ragtime, liturgical music and generous quotations from Debussy's Le Martyre de saint Sébastien embroider a score that tends toward lyricism and tradition (da capo arias, Verdian chorus), but which also explores the darker, more austere territory of 20th century composition.

Jean-Michel Richer (Le Comte Vallier de Tilly) and Étienne Dupuis (Simon Doucet) © Yves Renaud
Jean-Michel Richer (Le Comte Vallier de Tilly) and Étienne Dupuis (Simon Doucet)
© Yves Renaud

The Orchestre Métropolitain, led by Pacific Opera Victoria artistic director Timothy Vernon, tackled this accessible score's varied terrain with assurance from upstage. Dressed in prison garb, partly concealed by the set's soaring prison bars or a diaphanous white curtain, bathed in moody lighting and projections of fire or stars, they were integral to the performance beyond musicianship.

Apart from the bishop's liturgical robes and Vallier's brief appearance in a swathe of scarlet, drab grey prison garb was all that the trio of costume designers had to work with, but the results impressed. Inmates were differentiated by details such as T-shirts, hats and shorter pants, while the two female characters' draped skirts and fancy hats pointed to their improvisation with uniforms, blankets and any other materials to hand (interestingly the female fashions are from at least a decade prior to 1912, perhaps a nod to mid-20th century male prisoners' tenuous grasp of the subject).

The set design also achieves a lot with very little: a double layer of high, black prison bars, frequently shifted to create a varied sense of space and confinement, are augmented by a few props, such as a bathtub and a big white balloon. Dramatic lighting and projections do the rest in a cohesive, uncomplicated production directed by Serge Denoncourt.

Les Feluettes may be rooted in Québec, but this powerful and darkly beautiful opera seems likely to flourish much further afield.