Marc Hervieux, Dominique Côté, Kathleen Fortin, Frayne McCarthy, Linda Sorgini, Jean Maheux; Chloé Dominguez (cello), Esther Gonthier, Rosalie Asselin (piano)
ATMA Classique ACD22814 126:30 mins (2 discs)
Émile Nelligan (1879-1941) is an admired French-Canadian contemporary of Rimbaud and Verlaine whose extant poetry was written in just three years. In 1899, when scarcely 20 years old, he was committed to an asylum for the insane where he died in 1941 having never written another word.
The life of a poète maudit in Quebec caught between an English-speaking father and a francophone mother would seem a natural for the Canadian playwright Michel Tremblay, who has brutally dissected working-class family life. But beware, this recording is not exactly the opera that Tremblay wrote with the composer André Gagnon and premiered in 1990. It’s a chamber version for two pianos and a cello arranged by Anthony Rozankovic. And frankly it’s a disappointment.
In any case, Tremblay’s libretto ebbs and flows backwards and forwards through Nelligan’s life somehow bypassing the emotional drama that is music theatre. What is Nelligan’s problem; linguistic schizophrenia or the love that dared not speak its name? The accompanying booklet offers no texts and translations for the musical numbers.
Psychologically the characters are thinner than cigarette paper, with only Émile’s mother, handsomely sung by Kathleen Fortin, remotely credible. Marc Hervieux as the old Émile is ambitiously expressive in a number like ‘Au bout d’un long couloir’ but what exactly is he expressing? As for Young Émile, Dominique Coté seems to be auditioning for off-Broadway.
No one is helped by Gagnon’s score. Hints of Chopin and Schubert and rolling Rachmaninov chords cannot really disguise the fact that this is cocktail bar music with meandering sugared melodies, insistent ostinatos and a heavy left hand.