Sets, Cast, And Chorus Were Great. Music And Libretto, Not So Much

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Joyce El-Khoury as Christina and Pascale Spinney as Countess Ebba in the Opéra de Montréal production of ‘La Reine-garçon‘ (Photos by Vivien Gaumand)

MONTREAL — Credit where credit is due: The Opéra de Montréal on Feb. 3 filled much of Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, the big all-purpose room of Place des Arts, for the world premiere of La Reine-garçon, a gender-bending treatment of Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-89) by the experienced Québécois team of composer Julien Bilodeau and librettist Michel Marc Bouchard. The sets were evocative, the cast was exemplary, the chorus made hearty sounds. All the two-hour-and-45-minute spectacle (intermission included) needed was a dramatic arc to unify its multifarious scenes and a score that delved significantly beneath the surface.

The former seemed to be assured by the success of Bouchard’s 2012 play Christine, la reine-garçon, as well as the existence of a 2015 film by Mika Kaurismäki based on this source. The theater and the cinema, however, accommodate biographical clutter in a way the opera stage does not. Like La beauté du monde, the Bilodeau-Bouchard collaboration of 2022, La Reine-garçon seemed more encumbered than energized by its narrative complications.

Tenor Isaiah Bell played the foppish Count Johan.

The confusion started at the beginning, as a chorus of courtiers improbably stood outside in a snowstorm, commenting on wildlife. Christina (soprano Joyce El-Khoury) materialized for unclear reasons and was subjected to something close to a sexual assault before Count Karl Gustav (the sturdy baritone Etienne Dupuis) proposed marriage. The answer was, unsurprisingly, no, a thousand times no. She must attend to the cultural needs of her nation.

Much of the rest of the drama, such as it was, comprised unsuccessful attempts by various parties to break her resistance. The framework allowed for some arresting appearances by the foppish Count Johan (the clarion tenor Isaiah Bell), whose admiration of his own fine legs was the source of much audience merriment; and the dowager Queen Maria Eleonora, played to great effect with two walking sticks as a kind of coloratura Klytemnästra by the veteran soprano Aline Kutan. Even René Descartes (another fine Canadian, tenor Eric Laporte) made a couple of cameos, although the first of these, a theological debate with Christina, was surprisingly mundane. He thinks, therefore he bores!

The Opéra de Montréal production of ‘La Reine-garçon‘ featured a glittering representation in Act 2 of the Northern Lights.

Effective or not, these supporting star turns had little effect on the development of the title character, who remained glumly defiant (and dressed in formidable boots) from beginning to end. Nor did her nominally transgressive affection for her lady-in-waiting, Countess Ebba (mezzo-soprano Pascale Spinney) generate much frisson. After all, one of Christina’s rationalist objectives is to purge her soul of love.

None of this is to say that El-Khoury did less than she could to bring off her heavy soliloquies. Praise is also owed bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch for making a strong figure of Chancellor Axel, who is tasked with supplying “boy-queen” backstory in Act 1 and must evince outrage in Act 2 at Christina’s hard-to-explain decision to abandon her Protestant faith in favor of Roman Catholicism. It was one of a few supposedly pivotal moments that proved less than convincingly operatic.

Another motif that seemed appliquéd was the frequent evocation of the great outdoors despite the primarily courtly content of the story. There was even a reference to “mon pays,” words that can hardly fail to resonate in the spacious nation within a nation that is Quebec. Certainly those vistas were impressive, if largely etched in gray, black, and white. Anick La Bissonnière (sets) and Alexandre Desjardins (video designer) deserve equal billing. Costumes by Sébastien Dionne were crisply of the period. Stage director Angela Konrad marshaled the characters as clearly as she could.

Soprano Joyce El-Khoury as Christina and tenor Eric Laporte as René Descartes

The night might have been salvaged by a score with compelling thematic elements. What Bilodeau gave us was a good deal of modulating turbulence, sometimes shadowy in the Pelléas manner. An interesting exception was a glittering representation in Act 2 of the Northern Lights. There were also occasional amplified herding calls for which Anne-Marie Beaudette was credited. Vocal writing was mostly declamatory. Conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal did good work in the pit. Voices could always be heard.

So not, altogether, a positive night. Yet it needs to be acknowledged that production values were high. Nor was my skepticism shared by the crowd, which rewarded the performance with five solid minutes of whooping and cheering. Many companies talk about cultivating an audience for contemporary repertoire. The Opéra de Montréal has done it. The next new opera, also based on a play, is Enigma, opening April 7. A popular hit? Probably. A good show? We shall see.