A Class Act
Had Norman Rockwell been from Quebec, his work most certainly would have included scenes from the very charming and historic village of Saint-Eustache, which lies to the northwest of Montréal. The quaint backdrop of historic architecture and equally picturesque scenes, coupled with the distinct Quebecoise sonority of the residents' speech, left me with an otherworldly feeling about this visit. Though it could have been the sugar high from all the sirop d'erable, I felt there was something special happening in the music that permeated throughout the town: the First Annual Opera Festival of Saint-Eustache.
International artists joined local chorus and orchestral ensembles to present three days of glorious music. This year's festival concept was to have three programs, representing the operatic works of three regions: France, Quebec and Italy.
Representing France, Friday night's Soirée Offenbach was a fantastic gala affair, complete with costumes, special lighting projections, chamber orchestra, chorus and soloists. Thanks to Alfredo Troisi's scenographic lighting projections and Patricia Panton's elegant stage direction, the event was staged as if the singers were transported on a magical train to Venice, the Eiffel Tower and, of course, to the Moulin Rouge for the famous Can-Can. The program was presented at l'Eglise de Saint-Eustache, a picturesque venue, where the residents didn't seem to mind that the altar and other fixtures were moved around to accommodate the evening's spectacle.
French operetta is dazzling, beautiful and just plain fun and Friday night's program did not disappoint. The soloists, chorus and orchestra maneuvered through the range of Offenbach's works with clarity, exuberance and heart under the baton of French conductor, Vincent Monteil.
Saturday night, the festival sponsored a program of music and lyrics by the Quebec native composer Lionel Daunais, performed by Chantal Lambert and Dominique Cote, vocalists, and Marc Bourdeau, pianist. The presentation was at the Centre d'Art Petite Eglise De Saint-Eustache, a historic church converted into a charming arts venue and perfect for the intimacy necessary to experience Daunais' wit. His music sounds like a cross between Poulenc and Tom Lehrer; it is refreshingly charming and quite verbose. Each singer's diction was impeccable, which is necessary to interpret this music, so intimately connected to the lyrics and without losing the fullness of the singing tone. The performance was highly entertaining and the staging, by Marie-Lou Dion, enabled the interpretation of the songs to capture the full range intended by the composer. Daunais' children were in attendance and honored at the end of the performance. What a wonderful gift Daunais had given his children – the gift of music and the memories of a father singing and playing these songs for his children. Beautiful, clever, and, had I known more Quebecally unique words (other than what is apparently all of Quebec's favorite vegetable, Patate), I am sure that I would have joined the other audience members on the floor in complete belly-laughs.
Sunday morning, Cécile Vallée-Jalbert taught a public masterclass featuring some of the singers in the festival. Madame Jalbert is one of the most respected vocal teachers in Quebec, and it was easy to see why. With her classic technical methods and attention to detail, she was able to open the sound of these young singers to something most glorious.
Our journey finally ended Sunday afternoon in Italy with a presentation of classic Italian Opera on the lawn at Promenade Paul-Sauve. There was a very laid-back feel to the event, so I was completely taken by surprise by the powerhouse singing that the soloists brought to the stage. From the very expressive musicality of soprano Jessica Wise to the the playful rich mezzo of Johanne Patry and the sweetly agile tenor voice of Jonathan Lemieux, the quality of the singing was outstanding. Leila Chalfoun delivered a passionate performance of Liu's aria, Stephanie Lessard sang Mimi with fragile grace and Timothy Lafontaine brought down the house with his powerful fury as Rigoletto.
During the weekend's events, over 2,000 people attended the various programs (not bad for a sleepy town of only 40,000) and, purely from looking at the faces in the crowd and their reactions, they were having a blast. The first Festival Opéra was indeed a feather in the cap of Saint-Eustache.