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Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am)

Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Arts
02/03/2024 -  & February 6, 8, 11, 2024
Julien Bilodeau: La Reine‑garçon (World Premiere)
Joyce El-Khoury (Christine, reine de Suède), Etienne Dupuis (Comte Karl Gustave), Isaiah Bell (Comte Oxenstierna), Daniel Okulitch (Le Chancelier Axel Oxenstierna), Pascale Spinney (Comtesse Ebba Sparre), Eric Laporte (René Descartes), Aline Kutan (Marie-Eléonore de Brandebourg), Alain Coulombe (L’assistant de Descartes), Anne‑Marie Beaudette (Off‑stage Kulning Chant)
Chœur de l’Opéra de Montréal, Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Jean‑Marie Zeitouni (conductor). Angela Konrad (stage director), Anick La Bissonnière (sets), Sébastien Dionne (costumes), Eric Champoux (lighting), Alexandre Desjardins (videography)

J. El-Khoury, E. Dupuis

Many years ago, while visiting Rome in the company of my late brother, he pointed out Palazzo Corsini where Queen Christina of Sweden resided during her exile in Rome (1659‑1689). He expressed his astonishment regarding the supposed mystery of having abdicated the throne of Sweden, of embracing Catholicism and moving to Rome. Indeed, the beauty of her palace, its surroundings and the overall charm and temperate climate of Rome are vastly more appealing than the cold austerity of Sweden, aptly described by one of the opera’s characters as “le royaume sans joie.”

The subject is known to many through Rouben Mamoulian’s legendary film, Queen Christina (1933), starring Greta Garbo. Given the epoch, the film’s sentimental plot bore no relation to historical fact. Likewise, the opera Cristina, regina di Svezia (1849) by Italian composer Jacopo Foroni (1825‑1858) was an apocryphal account of Christine’s unrequited love for one her male courtiers, Magnus Gabriel de la Gardie. Foroni’s opera even omits the renouncement of her Lutheran faith so as not to offend the Swedes to whose he had relocated, and where he enjoyed a prominent career.

With today’s more liberal societal values, Christine’s sexual orientation and her struggle with religious faith are no longer taboo. Quebec playwright Michel Marc Bouchard (b.1958) wrote a successful play La Reine‑garçon (2012) about the Swedish monarch, later adapted into a 2015 film by Finnish director Mika Kaurismäki.

This operatic version, a world premiere, successfully uses the medium to concentrate on the intense emotions of several characters and is faithful to the historical facts. It certainly evokes a contemporary perspective of the life and solemn decision of the sovereign to abdicate her throne.

The production’s sets were truly remarkable, especially the outdoor scenes. Possibly “the idea of North,” with its severe cold, aurora borealis and the power of the elements are a common link between Sweden and Canada that enabled both German-Canadian stage director Angela Konrad and Canadian set designer Anick Bissonnière to faithfully capture the essence of winter, the impact of climate on character and even the boundaries that a severe climate imposes on people.

The opera aptly opens with a wintertime hunt in the Swedish forest. This establishes Christine’s independent character and tomboyish nature. Wooden columns were imaginatively utilized in front of the canvas of the trees, giving the forest a third dimension. Even seated in the front orchestra, the snow was convincing; one felt the stark beauty of the coldness.

In keeping with the Nordic setting, a brilliant device was used to convey torment, a Scandinavian chant known as Kulning, sung off‑stage by Anne‑Marie Beaudette. It’s in fact a herding call used to move livestock, sounding like a wounded beast’s cry to those unfamiliar with the tradition. This haunting sound could represent Count Karl Gustav’s unrequited love, but more likely it aims to evoke Christine’s burden of being queen and the ponderous expectations of her subjects and courtiers.

Given the limits of opera and the absence of close‑ups to show furtive glances, the opera is not as successful as the film in showing Christine’s growing infatuation with Countess Ebba Sparre. Though the libretto clearly indicates the amorous nature of their relationship, the interaction between the two is less convincing than in the film. Highly erotic in the film, the scene in which Christine dazzles Ebba with opulent dresses received from various hopeful suitors was not as charged in the opera. Nonetheless, mention should be made of Sébastien Dionne’s fabulously colourful costumes in this scene. A passionate kiss between the two women was cheered by several in the audience.

Liberties were taken in the costumes for the courtiers, either for simplicity or to convey austerity. In the seventeenth century, Sweden was one of Europe’s great powers, and its nobility and courtiers would have cut dashing figures, even considering their Protestant faith. Austere Dutch costumes from the same period were chosen, ones made familiar through the paintings of Rembrandt. Dutch Calvinists were considerably more austere than German and Scandinavian Lutherans. This transposition conveyed an excessive austerity in Christine’s court, but it made powerful Sweden seem modest. These familiar Dutch costumes are typical of the mercantile middle class, not befitting the Swedish nobility.

Playwright and librettist Michel Marc Bouchard obviously did his homework, having thoroughly studied Sweden’s history. Christine’s mother, Maria Eleanora von Brandenburg, was indeed a hysterically eccentric woman and she most likely was mentally ill. In this production, she’s brilliantly portrayed by coloratura soprano Aline Kutan as a formidably detestable character. It was known that she was not fond of her daughter and the antipathy was mutual. She refused to accept her husband’s death and kept his corpse in the palace for several months until a Councilor had it forcibly removed. Composer Julien Bilodeau (b.1974) had the brilliant idea of conveying Christine’s mother’s madness through Kutan’s coloratura. Instead of having a bel canto melodious “mad scene,” Kutan delivered a well‑written frightening scene using her powerful high notes as brittle knives. Overall, Julien Bilodeau’s music is pleasant, reminiscent of Britten, Walton and other contemporaneous British composers, relatively modern but non‑dissonant, elaborately orchestrated, with moments of great intensity.

In the presence of a Christine with less stage presence than Lebanese-Canadian soprano Joyce El‑Khoury, Kutan would have stolen the show, despite her relatively brief role. The role of Christine is a hugely challenging one, both vocally and dramatically, as she is onstage for much of the opera, and her vocal part is extensive. Mostly written in the middle register, the role also has several demanding passages in the higher register. Given its intensity, a gamut of emotions must be expressed: her passion for Ebba; her rage against her mother; her torment when Ebba is sequestered; and finally Ebba’s rejection. El‑Khoury captured the essence of the Swedish queen with striking aplomb. Dramatically, she was able to convey her authority and royal station as well as her vulnerability. Hers was a truly remarkable performance. I am not sure if Bilodeau knew who was to sing Christine but the role seemed tailor‑made for this fine soprano.

Mezzo Pascale Spinney was Countess Ebba Sparre. Her voice contrasted pleasantly with El‑Khoury’s. The role is that of a passive object of desire who yields to Christine’s advances and desire. As Ebba herself says in the scene where she asks for the Queen’s blessing to marry her male suitor, did she really have a choice to respond or not to Christine’s advances? It’s hard to shine in this lacklustre role. Unfortunately, not much of a spark between the two women was felt.

Baritone Etienne Dupuis was Count Karl Gustav, Christine’s devoted cousin and military man, who led many of Sweden’s campaigns during the Thirty Years War between the Holy Roman Empire and the Protestant Reformation. He is the one who raided Prague to bring back the treasures of the Holy Roman Emperor, including precious books and manuscripts which the bookish queen cherished. He deftly conveyed the gauche nature of a military man, unpolished and frustrated in his inability to express his desire, thwarted by Christine’s constant rejection. For a major singer like Dupuis, this is not a substantial role. The vocal part isn’t demanding, but he certainly did justice to the tormented dramatic aspect of the role.

Few may know that French philosopher René Descartes (1596‑1650) died in Stockholm. It’s thought that together with the machinations of the French ambassador, he played a role in enticing Christine to adopt the Catholic faith. The intellectually curious monarch invited him to Sweden to discuss his writings. It is suspected that the pneumonia that killed him was contracted during his frequent early morning trips to Christine’s drafty palace. In Bouchard’s interpretation, it is Descartes’s notion of free will that enabled Christine in her solemn choices of being true to herself, remaining unmarried and converting to Catholicism. Tenor Eric Laporte portrayed a jovial and avuncular Descartes with brio.

Tenor Isaiah Bell was the flamboyant Count Johan, son of Councilor Oxenstierna, Christine’s mentor and guardian, prior to her ascending to the throne. Perhaps the homosexuality of the character is exaggerated, but it provided comic relief without being in poor taste. This young man has immense stage presence and is endowed with a powerful and beautiful instrument. Watch out for him – stardom awaits.

Though Johan’s character is unpleasant, as the young count is ambitious, manipulative, vain and narcissistic, Bell manages somehow to make him sympathetic. In a contemporary treatment, librettist Michel Marc Bouchard introduces an apocryphal scene where the Count offers Christine a way out of her predicament, a fake marriage where each could lead their lives as they desired. But Christine wasn’t interested in living a lie, and eventually abdicated. At the end of the opera, Johan is enraged that Christine adopted his rival Count Karl Gustav to succeed her, and then abdicates. Johan represents the closeted homosexual, resigned to live a lie, while Christine is the liberated one, true to herself, even if it means losing the throne. Though this proposed fake marriage isn’t historically accurate, this production’s finale, with a dignified Christine and a devastated Johan, is an appealing dénouement seen through a contemporary lens.

This was a thoroughly memorable world premiere with a potent historical subject, made relevant for contemporary audiences. Though the character of Queen Christine enthralled as the work’s central character, the other protagonists were also worthy of mention. It was a pleasure and a privilege to have witnessed the creation of this powerful new work that I suspect will soon earn its rightful place in the pantheon of contemporary operatic repertoire.

Ossama el Naggar



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