I wondered what I was in for when I read the front of the opera program: “A Modern opera about social equity, Vodou, and Zombies.” But as soon as the first act began, I knew that I had entered a fascinating world created by a gifted composer, an eloquent librettist, talented singers, and a world-class orchestral ensemble.
On February 11, 2023, La Flambeau—composed by Haitian-Québécois David Bontemps, with the libretto by Haitian librettist Faubert Bolivar—was performed at the L.R. Wilson Concert Hall on McMaster University’s campus in Hamilton, Ontario. The hall itself has excellent acoustics and the simple set and visual projections worked well in the 350 seat venue. The 16-piece orchestra fit comfortably on stage left. And what was the story being told? The title La Flambeau is a family name of some spirits in Haitian Vodou. And spirits figure prominently in this work about Monsieur and Madame, a conflicted couple. Monsieur is an intellectual who dreams about forming a Republic, while Madame talks to her deceased mother and uncle. Mademoiselle, their maid and the only bright light in this deeply troubled home, is psychologically and physically abused by Monsieur. Mademoiselle flees the home in search of help. Finally, in the middle of the night, Monsieur is visited by a stranger named l’Homme. Monsieur confesses that he raped Mademoiselle and l’Homme changes him into a zombie who is forever destined to be a servant to his community. Throughout this tale, the themes of justice and equality are played out.
Jamaican-Canadian tenor Paul Williamson was convincing as the egocentric Monsieur. His vocal and acting versatility were apparent in his interpretation of a studious orator turned rapist turned condemned man turned zombie. Canadian mezzo-soprano Catherine Daniel was magnificent as Madame. Her velvety voice conveyed her character’s deep sorrow and her final rhythmic farewell to her philandering husband was forceful and captivating. Cameroonian-born soprano Suzanne Taffot portrayed the innocence and vibrancy of Mademoiselle with her dynamic stage presence and her virtuosity in her upper register. At the end of the opera, her voice mirrored her character’s new found confidence and freedom. When Taffot and Daniel sang a duet, the resulting sound was lush harmony. American bass Brandon Coleman was electrifying as l’Homme. His deeply sonorous tones made for a memorable judgement scene, one worthy of a Mozartean Commendatore. Coleman commanded attention when onstage and delivered a dramatic punch with every note.
Conductor Alain Trudel skilfully led the 16-piece National Academy Orchestra (NAO) through the tricky rhythms; western-sounding classical excerpts would turn on a dime into rhythmic puzzles with Haitian Nago music, Yanvalou and Kongo dances, and voodoo songs. From the moment the basses played their first ominous notes, to the times when the violins sent chills down one’s spine with their high pitched rhythms, one had a sense that the accompaniment was perfectly timed and cohesive. Percussionist Alejandro Cespedes Pazos’s adept use of different kinds of maracas and a shékere, added to the rich heritage and driving rhythm of this opera.
Mariah Inger’s stage direction was compelling, particularly in the rape scene, made even more starkly dramatic by Anne-Catharine Simad-Deraspe’s lighting design. Ginette Grenier’s steampunk inspired costumes were visually striking and added to the aura of mysterious time travel.
There are many things that made this 80-minute opera unique. That it was initiated under the Artistic Directorship of the late Boris Brott in Montréal makes the bilingual connection particularly poignant. That it was written by a Haitian-Canadian using a Black cast adds to the authenticity of the work. In order to pull opera into the 21st century, works like this must be showcased by Canadian opera companies. Bravo to Brott Opera for making sure that truly equal representation in the arts is happening.