Stage Door Review
Tuesday, February 14, 2023
by David Bontemps, directed by Mariah Inger
Orchestre classique de Montréal, L.R. Wilson Concert Hall, McMaster University, Hamilton
February 13, 2023
Madame: “Est-ce la vie ou est-ce la mort?”
Brott Opera has benefited the people of Southern Ontario in a major way by bringing a brand-new Québécois opera to Hamilton. The opera is La Flambeau (the definite article is correct) by Haitian-Canadian composer David Bontemps. The work was given its world premiere in Montreal by the Orchestre classique de Montréal on February 7 of this year. For many La Flambeau will likely the first opera by a Black Canadian composer with an all-Black Canadian cast that they have ever heard. It is a very impressive work.
The libretto for La Flambeau is by the composer based on the 2014 play of the same name by Haitian writer Faubert Bolivar. The 80-minute-long piece is set in Haiti but in no definite historical period. It is rather like an allegorical fairy-tale since the characters have generic names and serve emblematic functions, but Bolivar and Bontemps have giving them each enough individual detail that they comes across more as real people than symbolic figures.
The action concerns Monsieur, who is preparing a speech to deliver about the importance of the Republic in which he is an official of some sort. He meditates on the Latin derivation of the word “republic”, i.e. “res publica”, which literally means “public matter” but refers to a government by elected officials as opposed to a monarchy. Though the official name for the country is “République d’Haïti”, Haiti has had a turbulent history of government since 1804 when it became the first independent nation of Latin America and the Caribbean. It has at times become a kingdom and even when a nominal republic has had more than one “president for life”. Monsieur’s meditation on a government elected by the people to serve the people is thus meant as satirical, a notion reinforced by the mocking tones of Bontemps’s music.
Monsieur’s meditations are interrupted by the arrival of his wife, Madame. Rather confusingly, she seems to be speaking not to Monsieur but to people who we can’t see. Eventually we realize with a chill that she is speaking with the ghosts of her mother and her uncle. Monsieur has become so inured to Madame’s strange habit that he doesn’t notice anymore. Monsieur and Madame may be in the same room but they have become so alienated from each other that they may as well be miles away. Madame herself, might as well be in another world. She is so occupied with the world of ghosts that she even wonders whether she is or is not alive: “Est-ce la vie ou est-ce la mort?”
The only bit of light in this sombre household is the servant Mademoiselle, who fully enjoys her work. She feels particularly safe since she wears a ring given to her by her godfather Ogou La Flambeau. Those who are conversant with world mythology will know that Ogou is the Haitian version of the Yoruba god Ogun, the god of fire, war, iron, politics and furnaces. Frequent theatre-goers may remember that American playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney makes Ogun a character, in human form, in his play The Brothers Size (2006), another play heavily influenced by Yoruba myth.
One day, Monsieur, who can no longer bear to be with Madame, is overcome with lust and sexually assaults Mademoiselle. But, as the composer himself told the audience in a speech before the performance, La Flambeau is not an opera about revenge, as so many operas are, but about justice. In this case, Monsieur’s actions cause Ogou to appear. Ogou’s punishment of Monsieur is to turn him into a zombie.
In Haitian religion, as in the Yoruban mythology that imbues it, Ogou is not strictly speaking a god. In Yoruban mythology Ogun is an orisha or force of nature who mediates between the one god Olodumare and humankind. In Haitian religion Ogou is called a lwa but has the same function of mediation between the one god Bondye (i,e., “Bon Dieu”) and humankind. In Bolivar’s play as in the opera, Ogou is called Ogou La Flambeau as a short form for Ogou de la Société Flambeau. The various lwas form societies and La Flambeau is the name of the society responsible for maintaining justice in the world.
Bontemps’s opera has at least two goals. One is to put on stage a more accurate representation of voodoo as a religion. The other is to present an ironic parable which asks us why a woman like Mademoiselle should receive justice only from gods and his agents rather than from man.
This second point is self-explanatory but the first needs some elucidation. The preferred name for voodoo nowadays is the Haitian term “vodou” since the practitioners feel the term “voodoo” belongs to the Louisiana version of the religion and since the term “voodoo” has been hopelessly debased by American popular culture. The notion of zombies in particular in today’s popular culture derives almost entirely from George Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, which has nothing to do with Haitian religion and, strangely enough, never even uses the term “zombie”.
La Flambeau is probably the first opera to present the world from the authentic point of view of vodou. Contrary to popular belief we see that vodou is monotheistic with the lwas functioning much as saints do in Roman Catholicism. Indeed, it is no accident that when Roman Catholic missionaries tried to convert slaves brought to Haiti from Africa, they themselves linked the lwas to saints. Ogou’s Catholic equivalent is St. James the Great, the first of the Twelve Apostles to be martyred.
In vodou people are conceived of as having two souls – the ti bonnanj, the source of will and reflection, and the gwo bonnanj, the source of memory and intelligence. A character named only “L’Homme” appears whom we assume is Ogou. He makes Monsieur a zombie by extracting his ti bonnanj and placing it in a bottle. Since vodou does not believe in an afterlife, Monsieur will have to wander the earth in this bereft condition for a year and a day after which his body will return to the four elements. Ogou takes away Monsieur’s will because it was his will that caused him to assault Mademoiselle.
Thus, Bontemps’s short opera shines a light on a world that will, for most of us, be entirely new. Bontemps’s music, however, is immediately accessible, a rich combination of romanticism, minimalism and jazz. Bontemps has composed the work for 16-piece string orchestra and maracas. The overture is filled with lushly orchestrated melody, sounding quite a bit like Grieg’s Holberg Suite (1884), except that the melodies are of Haitian origin.
For the seven scenes that make up the action Bontemps establishes a rhythm in the cyclical manner of minimalists against which the performers sing their arias. Unlike many modern operas Bontemps actually writes arias since Bolivar has given the characters long reflective pieces. For Monsieur and Madame the arias are modern but not atonal and feature memorable repeated passages. Mademoiselle’s music is syncopated in the mode of jazz, thus distinguishing her immediately from her employers. The music of L’Homme combines elements of modernism and of jazz as suits a mediational figure. Bontemps does not shy away from the old-fashioned use of tremolo in the strings to signal the beginning of the frightening portions of the action.
The sole percussionist has two sizes of maracas at his disposal plus the Yoruban instrument called a shekere. This is a large dried gourd covered with a net of beads and struck on its unbeaded bottom. This makes a sound like maracas only much lower and with more resonance. Bontemps uses the maracas to underline references to the supernatural and the shekere to accompany the spectral L’Homme or, later, memories of him.
Bontemps’s music is gratefully written for the voice and he makes sure to give each of the characters a virtuoso aria. Jamaican-Canadian tenor Paul Williamson well captures the pomposity and self-obsession of Monsieur, qualities which fade into whimpers when he encounters L’Homme. As Madame, Canadian Catherine Daniels lists herself as a mezzo-soprano but she is really a true contralto. The depth and richness of her low notes are a pleasure to experience. She has Madame show such engagement with the ghosts she converse with that at first we think they are meant to be characters who just happen to be out of view. After Monsieur is zombified Daniels drops the fear and hauntedness that characterized Madame’s voice and we see Madame finally as the stable woman she must have been before she Monsieur.
As Mademoiselle, Canadian-Cameroonian soprano Suzanne Taffot is a delight. She brightens up, both with her shining high soprano and with her charming acting, the potentially lugubrious atmosphere of the piece. She sings Mademoiselle’s jaunty aria about how much she enjoys her everyday work with joyful panache. Taffot fully communicates both Mademoiselle’s distress after her assault and later her confidence that she will receive justice from Ogou. At the ending as Monsieur shuffles off in a zombified state, Taffot adds a satirical note to her singing as Mademoiselle triumphs over her now-powerless master.
American Brandon Coleman is hugely impressive as L’Homme, his cavernous bass-baritone, measured delivery and powerful presence absolutely perfect for this spirit of war.
The uncredited minimal set depicted Monsieur’s library with a chaise-longe to one side which may have indicated a separate room. The uncredited costumes universalized the action by garbing all four characters in steampunk-influenced outfits. The women’s combined black leather with lots of black lace and the men, also in black, wore hats – a top hat for Monsieur, a bowler with wings for L’Homme – that featured aviator goggles around the brim.
Alain Trudel, interim Artistic Director of the Brott Music Festival and of Brott Opera, drew precise, impassioned playing from the chamber orchestra. Special praise must go to concertmaster Marc Djokic who produced the long, steady solo high notes that Bontemps often calls for and to Alejandro Cespedes Pazos for the precision of his percussion playing. Montreal stage director Mariah Inger positioned the singers’ acting precisely between the stylized and the naturalistic, exactly what is called for in a work where the natural and supernatural meet.
It was a real joy to encounter a brand new Canadian opera that was so accessible and dramatically and musically so enjoyable. I only wish that there were more performances so more people could experience the piece and the talent of the artists. ATMA Classique has announced that it will record La Flambeau for release sometime in 2024. But really this a work that demands to be experienced live. Let’s hope that this work sets a precedent for such co-productions between Brott Opera and other companies. The Hamilton area has been hungry for opera ever since the demise of Opera Ontario/Opera Hamilton in 2014. In bringing opera to the area in winter like this, Brott Opera helps reinvigorate the local cultural landscape. As an opera by a Black composer with an all-Black cast, Bontemps’s La Flambeau is of particular historical importance in Canada and should be seen by the widest possible audience.
Photos: Catherine Daniel as Madame and Suzanne Taffot as Mademoiselle; Catherine Daniel as Madame and Paul Williamson as Monsieur; Brandon Coleman as L’Homme; Suzanne Taffot as Mademoiselle. © 2023 Annette B. Woloshen.
For tickets visit brottmusic.com.