Culture  Deflowering the opera

Chants Libres’s latest production parts with operatic tradition

This weekend, the music production company Chants Libres will be premiering its opera – L’Eau qui danse, la pomme qui chante et l’oiseau qui dit la vérité. Described as an Opéra Féerie, or “Enchanted Opera,” this work combines an atonal composition by Gilles Tremblay with the fairy tale libretto of Pierre Morency. This is the 13th original opera the Montreal-based organization has put on in the past 20 years. The founder of Chants Libres, Pauline Vaillancourt, says their goal is “to create new forms of opera.” The organization gives contemporary composers the opportunity to reinvent a genre of music typically associated with the obstinately antique decorum of the opera house.

Tremblay’s musical composition is macabre. An untraditional and dissonant orchestra creates narrative through a linear exploration of mood. The violin section undulates with sparse but frenetic chromaticism, and melds into a brass section emitting an undergrowth of swollen arhythmic chords, parsed only by the melodic intervention of a French horn. A chorus of glockenspiels, marimbas, chimes, piano, and Asiatic percussion occasionally flood the hall and illustrate their own nocturnal punctuation. At times, the cacophony bleeds away, revealing four double-basses playing slowly dissonant harmonies.

The intricacies of this orchestral backdrop relate to the opera’s singers as a Greek chorus to the other actors. The orchestra responds to the isolated melodies of the singers, creating a powerful emotional undercurrent. The arias themselves are melodically much closer to traditional opera. Tremblay’s musical exploration of mood intertwines Western operatic tradition with contemporary atonality and “Oriental” instrumentation.

The tale is typical: several royal children are exiled as infants from the City of Wonders by an evil queen, and must undergo trials on a voyage of self-discovery. The motifs of dancing water, a singing apple, and a bird that only speaks the truth hammer home the expected dramatic action – the children find their way home, and then find love. The story, however, is subordinated to the operatic medium; the simplicity of the journey-to-adulthood motif is splattered by the darker gravity of its music and staging.

Robert Bellefeuille, the stage director, tells me that L’Eau qui danse is a complete departure from the traditional opera. “This opera,” he says, “is virginal.” The sombre conversation between the different elements of the composition reveals natural, though idiosyncratic, undertones. This simplicity compelled Bellefeuille to use nature as an inspiration for his mise en scène. He tells me the colours on the stage are meant to reproduce the aurora borealis; he sought to create a “theatre of shadow” that is at once simple and evocative. The images on the stage unify the dark music with the light, fantastical libretto. “Everything is calculated,” declares Bellefeuille as he describes the shadows carpeting the stage of the first scene. The shadows, he says, are the connection between reality and magic – they explore the limits of the work, and unify the music and the story.

L’Eau qui danse’s departure from tradition and unique exploration of chromaticism and instrumentation makes this opera worth hearing.

The Opéra Féerie runs this Thursday, November 19 through Saturday, November 21 in Salle Ludger-Duvernay at the Monument-National.