Edmonton Opera’s season opener both shines and wilts
On the surface, Lilies, the 2017 Edmonton Opera season opener, has all the makings of great theatre. The source material, for instance, screams tragédie lyrique, as LGBTQ issues are put to stage in a tale of unbridled passion colliding with morbid obsession and intolerance.
Based on Michel Marc Bouchard’s 1987 play of the same name, the story concerns Simon, an aging prisoner who surreptitiously invites a Catholic bishop to hear his final “confession,” a retelling of his first love some 40 years prior.
Using his fellow inmates as characters in a play within a play, we see a love triangle emerge: Simon falls in love with a man named Vallier, while a young seminary student (a younger, less-deluded version of our bishop) wrestles with his desire for Simon and devotion to the clergy. Eventually, this marriage of passion and jealousy reach a fever pitch; the young bishop murders Vallier and blames the innocent and heartbroken Simon.
The libretto—provided by Bouchard—is a masterwork and the highlight of the show. Every word in every bar simultaneously harkens classic opera while remaining faithful to the contemporary nature of the piece. The love story is made outstanding and beautiful by visceral lyrics matched by an impressive physicality on the part of our two leads, Zachary Read and Jean-Michel Richer.
The rest of the ensemble is equally impressive, approaching the material with enviable skill. In particular, Daniel Cabena’s portrayal of Lydie-Anne is marvellous; the decision to avoid a comic falsetto and approach her as an actual character is well-rewarded (you’ll find no Buttercup here).
Indeed, it is a decidedly bold opening for Edmonton Opera—while certainly not a first for the medium, this is the first Canadian opera to tackle LGBTQ themes, a triumph in it’s own right.
Despite the undeniable importance and hype, Lilies isn’t without sin. There is greatness, but it’s fleeting.
For starters, the concept of subtlety is lost—or is at least perilously unbalanced—in the set design. Using colossal prison bars as your main set-pieces is effective (albeit blatant) in getting the themes of restraint across. But, in the quieter moments, they fail at depicting a space or a setting leaving almost too much to the imagination.
What’s more, the utter bombast in Kevin March’s score seems counterintuitive to the themes suggested by our libretto. The story and lyrics are soft and tender, much like the romance we watch unfold. The accompaniment, on the other hand, is cinematic; only when the manor house is engulfed in flame does it seem fitting.
These issues, coupled with a plodding final act, makes Lilies the curious piece that it is: it’s good and, occasionally, attains greatness, before succumbing to it’s flaws. The lyrics are marvellous, but the music is cookie cutter. It’s very important, while also being self-important.
Nevertheless, as a spectacle and evening of theatre, it’s fine—a suitable opening for this year’s opera season.
Fri., Oct. 27 (7:30 pm)
Lilies (Les Feluettes)
Northern Alberta Jubilee