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Also published in The Rover.

André Gagnon’s opera Nelligan premiered in 1990 at the Grand Theatre de Québec with a pop cast. On Saturday, the Atelier lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal reprised it, twenty years on, at the Monument National. A more ambitious production than anything the Opéra de Montréal has dared at Place des Arts, it is full of talented young singers and features local tenor stalwart Marc Hervieux as insurance.

The experience was electric and confusing, like breakfast with Tesla: evidence that opera is alive and a sign that something is the matter with it. Nelligan is a romantic embalming whose libretto (by Michel Tremblay) could have been written in 1899, the year the poet had his breakdown. It makes a poor argument for the relevance of the art. A contemporary opera is more than updated music; it is a rethinking of the form.

The revival should have been an opportunity for much-needed renewal, a reading to bring out contradictions that don’t fit into the myth of artistic martyrdom. This Émile is just one of “two poor wet cats on the way to the slaughterhouse,” as Tremblay puts it.

Myths usually serve some purpose. Though Nelligan’s ideology is unclear, it leans to moralistic determinism: Émile must ‘die’ because he is a great poet. His mother must ‘die’ in giving him up. His father must ‘die’ a slave to his Irishness. Minor characters like Father Seers and Françoise resonate somebody else’s ideas, and only promising performances by baritone Pierre Rancourt and mezzo-soprano Catherine Daniel gave them any life.

Old Nelligan did not seem much work for Hervieux, who often stood and watched the cast time travel, a cinematic trick that struggled through the river of syrup oozing from the pit. Two pianos lounged next to a cello salvaged from the Titanic and made beautiful music, though at times I admit I found it difficult. As I meditated on Tremblay’s words, the melodies seemed like leaden ingots flying molten from the keys on sapphire wings, striking my heart with golden daggers of sound, poisoning me, until I wondered whether so much feeling wasn’t fattening. I had invited my doctor (it is the only time I can get an appointment), and she assured me that I would be fine because I am a true critic.

The evening had two stars: Dominique Côté was energetic and bold as Young Nelligan, and Caroline Bleau was lucid and warm as his mother. Bleau managed to break through the sentimental fog and arrive at song we could trust, which was the night’s greatest achievement.

You could write an essay on lullaby forms in Nelligan, but I don’t recommend it. Try to think instead about the challenge of this opera, which attempts to distill a brief and laden life together with decades of its cultural importance. A life that asked about the role of art in the modern world; whether one can belong to two cultures; and will French survive in the face of continental English?

These are relevant questions – so let’s have some relevant opera about them.