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Thread: OTF – Nelligan, Opéra Romantique

          
   
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    Senior Member Involved Member itywltmt's Avatar
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    Cool OTF – Nelligan, Opéra Romantique

    This is the second of our short two-part series of posts focusing on our opera for the month of January, Nelligan, Opéra Roomantique by André Gagnon. Our first post provided some background on the poet Emile Nelligan as well as on the two contributing artists (composer and librettist).

    Today, I will share a synopsis, performance and insight on the original casting of the opera.

    Synopsis

    Nelligan opens with a brief preamble, set in the halls of St-Jean-de-Dieu asylum. The year is 1940, and an aged Nelligan is entering the final few months of his life. Attending sisters bring in a visitor: he teaches French literature, and has come to visit “our National Poet”. Nelligan, in a gaze but somewhat composed, suggests that the visitor has come to hear him recite his poem Le Vaisseau d’Or – as presumably many have requested of him before. He makes a valiant attempt, but gives up, as he cannot remember the words. Nelligan is then transported in his mind to his youth – to the last few weeks he spent in freedom.

    Act I

    “Old Emile” is transported to 1899 ehen he's 19 years old. His young self, mother, father and sisters are having a family picnic along the shores of the St-Lawrence river, which “Young Emile” hyperbolizes to be “The Sea”. He is encouraged by his younger sister to sing about the beauty of the Sea (Elle a glissé de son lit). The scene emphasizes the linguistic differences within the family unit. Nelligan’s mother, Emilie, sees that her son is “drifting away”.

    In the next scene, Emile shares drinks with two poets: Charles talks of a recent trip to France where he claims to have met Paul Verlaine, and the other poet Arthur disputes the claim. We find out that Charles is well-off (same as Emile) but that Arthur is a true struggling artist. The trio has an argument over their relative good and bad fortunes, and finally reconcile over more drinks. Seeing the trio passed out, “Old Emile” sings about their bohemian life, and how he especially liked Arthur. Emilie knocking at the door wakes the trio from their drunken stupor, and Emile knows he must return to his house.

    A few days have passed, and Father and mother are having a disagreement about their son’s behavior and poetry, father speaking exclusively in English, and mother sometimes in English, but mostly in French, something she identifies as a reason why their family is disjointed (Un père Anglais, une mere Fraançaise, et des enfants qui doivent choisir). Now in his room, we see “Young Emile” at work as “Old Emile” describes the feelings that are overtaking the young man. These feelings are quickly translated into a poem: La romance du vin. Quickly, Emile walks into the living room and begins to recite the poem, calling it “his creed” (J’ai écrit mon credo). Defiant and ennobled by the effort he quickly pronounces: “I am a poet, and I will die insane” (Je suis poète, et je mourrai fou).

    Act II

    The action opens in a church, where “Young Emile” has found refuge after another night of drinking. “Old Emile” knows that his ultimate fate is looming, and sings hoping Emile stays asleep (Dors, Emile, dors). Once awake, “Young Emile” decries the fact he is misunderstood, and blames family and Church. Hungry, he breaks into the sacristy to drink and eat from consecrated offerings – a blasphemous act. Later, he is discovered by his mother and an unnamed benefactor as well as by Father Sears, the parish priest. All three sing of how Emile’s poetry was beautiful at first, but that now he has become a tormented figure and has lost touch with reality (La petite porte).

    Back in his room, “Young Emile” discovers one more poem and “Old Emile” implores him to destroy it, since its discovery will mean his demise. As Emile is unafraid of his destiny, “Old Emile” tries to give him a taste of the grim days to come (L’air de l’asile). David enters Emile’s room, to have one last discussion with him. Reverting to French, he sings a tender song about the pride he felt when his son was born (Quand tu es né). He warns that if Emile does not change his ways, “there are places for people like you”.

    In a climactic scene, despite having had the assurance that he could live with Arthur, Emile, his demons and his parents finally seize him, only to throw him into a mental institution. Left alone, Emilie sings of her pain and torment (La dame en noir).

    Back in 1940, the aged Nelligan finally recites Le Vaisseau d’Or from beginning to end, emphasizing the last line “Hélas! Il a sombré dans l'abîme du Rêve!” (Alas! he has sunk in the abyss of dreams!).

    About the Original Cast

    The original (touring) production of Nelligan began its run at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, followed by stints at the Grand Théâtre in Québec City (where the televised version which makes up our performance was filmed) and finally at Place des Arts in Montreal.

    None of the singers in the original cast were “opera” singers, and many of them are “name artists” in the Québec music scene. This decision may have been made in an attempt to lure audiences to attend performances, who knows…

    “Old Emile” (Michel Comeau) had some experience singing in the local French staging of the musical Les Misérables, and comes closest to a “trained” singer amongst the principals. “Young Emile” is sung by Yves Soutière, more known for his acting and directing than his singing. Arthur de Bussières (Daniel Jean) had not sung in public – nor has he since that I know of – being best known as a studio musician on a number of albums by folk singers.

    David Nelligan was sung by Jim Corcoran, who is an English-speaking “Francophile” musician from the Eastern Townships, best known as a folk singer. Emilie was sung by Louise Forestier, a well-known French-Canadian folk and popular singer, who sang in Demain Matin, Montréal m’attend, a 1970 musical comedy Tremblay also wrote the libretto for. Popular artist Renée Claude (the benefactor) has the distinction of having had a vocalise written for her by Gagnon featured on his 1975 album Neiges.

    The casting choices may explain why a full symphony wasn’t used; the music director for the touring production was guitarist Scott Price, with a handful of musicians rather than full orchestra. Fifteen years later, Gilles Ouellet orchestrated the score for large orchestra, and that version with another ”name artist” cast is part of a special performance with the Montreal Symphony and distributed on CD by CBC Records. A recent restaging for the 20th anniversary featured tenor Marc Hervieux as “Old Emile” and was scored for cello and two pianos for the Montreal Opera’s Lyric workshop.

    In a final – and personal – note, I find this to be a very moving and lyrical piece. We may haggle over whether or not it constitutes opera or musical comedy, but the end result is stunning. I will admit that my eyes well up with tears every time I hear it. I confess that, since I am French-Canadian and know the story of this young man from school, I feel a real connection to the story. I sincerely hope the few notes I have provided over the last pair of posts provide you with the incentive – and insight – to enjoy this piece.

    The Performance

    The performance of Nelligan I retained was broadcast on Radio-Canada on December 9, 1990. It is a recording of a performance in Québec City by the original touring cast. I had recorded it on VHS tape on the airing date, and did an audio transfer for my own use – this is the version that is found on the Internet Archive link below.

    In doing research for this OTF series, I found the same performance on YouTube – as is the case for the audio transfer, it is not of the highest fidelity, but it has the advantage of providing visual cues the audio version can’t provide.

    Up to you to enjoy either/or!

    André GAGNON (* 1939)
    Nelligan, opéra romantique (1988-90)
    Opera in two acts, French libretto by Michel Tremblay

    PRINCIPAL CAST
    Emile Nelligan (An old man, ca. 1940) – Michel Comeau
    Emile Nelligan (An adolescent, ca. 1899) – Yves Soutière
    David Nelligan, his father – Jim Corcoran
    Emilie Hudon, his mother – Louise Forestier
    Arthur de Bussière, a poet – Daniel Jean
    His Benefactor – Renée Claude
    Musical Direction: Scott Price

    YOUTUBE URL: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list...gtf_WtkRWtnudw
    IA URL https://archive.org/details/16JaiSoif

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Thanks. If you re-post this as a comment in your article, the two will stay together; a more practical solution for the readers, I think. We'd leave this post here as well, for those who prefer to consult your articles here in the thread area rather than the CMS articles area.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    So, there is no version with trained opera singers and full orchestra?
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Senior Member Involved Member itywltmt's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) View Post
    So, there is no version with trained opera singers and full orchestra?
    No, not on disk anyway...

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