Arts & Entertainment, Music, Theatre

‘La Flambeau’: The torchbearer of Montréal’s Black art scene

Content Warning: Mentions of sexual assault

Are you looking for a way to celebrate Black History Month? Do you enjoy opera? How about living something that feels like a fever dream? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, look no further than Montreal’s very own production of La Flambeau by the Orchestre classique de Montreal (OCM).

La Flambeau, the magnum opus of composer David Bontemps and librettist Faubert Bolivar, celebrates traditional Afro-Haitian music, lore, and spirituality. The opera is rife with power imbalances, monologues dripping with raw emotion, and abuses most abominable in nature. Bontemps honours Black History Month with an all-Black cast and production team to bring Black artists and performers to the forefront. 

Through their conception of La Flambeau, Bontemps and Bolivar pay homage to their Afro-Creole heritage. The musical score expertly weaves classical Western opera with Haitian percussion, pentatonic and whole-tone scales, and blues notes. Reaching beyond the confines that characterize European opera, Bontemps’ decision to include Afro-Creole themes politically counters what opera can and should be. The composite of styles celebrates Haiti’s spiritual roots in West Africa while inadvertently reckoning with its devastating colonial history with France

The set only consists of a chaise longue, a podium, a small bookshelf, and a raised platform. Despite its modesty, the pieces complemented each other beautifully and never stole the audience’s attention away from the actors. Instead, the demure set highlighted the stars’ performances, allowing them to move naturally about the stage with a minimalist authenticity that many performances often lack.

The venue is part of Berri-UQAM’s campus, and does not lack  incredible staff. The refreshment service, venue staff, and organizational team were kind, communicative, and considerate beyond measure, taking great care to ensure that all spectators were well-treated and comfortable. 

Introduced first is Monsieur (Paul Williamson, tenor), a corrupt statesman and cruel husband. Monsieur laments the mental instability of his wife, Madame (Catherine Daniel, mezzo-soprano), who relays her restless night after being visited by a vision of her long-dead uncle. Finding his wife’s behaviour disconcerting, Monsieur returns to his political scheming. Mademoiselle (Suzanne Taffot, soprano), their maid, enters stage right and begins to pine for her lost ring, revealed to have belonged to the spirit Loa Papa Ogou, also known as L’Homme (Brandon Coleman, baritone bass). Monsieur consoles her and in a fit of vile lust, assaults her.

Few things could have prepared me for this scene. Despite the story being fictional, I felt a tug of nausea in my gut and a tightness in my throat. Mademoiselle staggers, crumpling to her knees, and collapses into her grief. Taffot’s voice, sharp and clear as glass, cuts straight through to the audience like a blast of cold wind. Mademoiselle’s grief hangs pregnant in the air and swells with each word.

Monsieur falls asleep and enters a dream realm where he encounters the Loa, Ogou, who condemns him for his many crimes. Madame holds Mademoiselle’s head in her lap and shares the horrific abuses she experienced living with Monsieur. The opera concludes with the two women, both victims of Monsieur, sharing a moment of compassion and tenderness in such a bleak story.  

Williamson’s depiction of the lecherous, lout Monsieur was so convincing that it proved difficult not to hate him. By contrast, Taffot’s sweet demeanour onstage was the picture of innocence. Daniel carried herself with a dignified grandeur, while Coleman’s voice can only be described as both decadent and profound.

La Flambeau is a story of love, compassion, justice, retribution, and resilience. By testing the possibility of Black feminist solidarity to overcome violence, the opera provides the audience with a much-needed dose of women supporting women through Madame’s warmth and generosity toward Mademoiselle. Even with its distance from reality and displays of human cruelty, one cannot help but feel a closeness and intimacy with the characters while bearing witness. 

‘La Flambeau’ premiered in Montreal on Feb. 7, 2023 at Salle Pierre-Mercure and will be touring Hamilton, Ontario next.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that this production was put on by the National Academy Orchestra Chamber Players. In fact, it was put on by the Orchestre classique de Montreal. The Tribune regrets this error.

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