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A Review of: Quebecite (A Jazz Fantasia In Three Cantos)
by Keith Garebian

George Elliott Clarke's Qubcit is an expanded version of a libretto he wrote at the request of the Guelph Jazz Festival in 2003. It does not have the music composed by Juno Award-winning pianist, D.D. Jackson, but it is an attractive paperback in crisply mannerist Galliard type. It most certainly is not trivial. However, it amounts to far less than Clarke probably intended. Conceived as a three-part jazz fantasia about two interracial couples in Quebec City at the end of the 20th century, it is an opera whose grand objective is-as Ajay Heble remarks in his "Postlude"-a new understanding of "identity, belonging, and collective social responsibility." From title, acknowledgement page (where names of Adrienne Clarkson and Pierre Elliott Trudeau are invoked), and the multicultural mixture of characters to the diction, settings (including a club called La Revolution Tranquille), and socio-political background, Qubcit is determinedly articulate about social and cultural marginalization as a by-product of the historic Canada-Quebec schism.
Academics, students of sociology and political science, and devotees of jazz poetry will not be disappointed. However, those seeking a convincing romance of Quebec will be, as, indeed, others will be who expect Clarke's lush poetry to take them to the superb levels of his books Whylah Falls, Beatrice Chancy, and the Governor-General Award-winning Execution Poems. The language of Quebecite is racy, spicy, rich, streaked with bilingual words and phrases, and redolent of the mixed scents (as Clarke claims) of "Absinthe-Brandy-Champagne-Chartreuse-Chicoutai-Cognac-Grappa-Palm-Port-Pastis-Rum-Saki-Sangria-Scotch-Tequila-Vodka." In other words, the language is shamelessly bastardized without diminishing the opera's appeal to jazz connoisseurs-though I wouldn't all manner of accomplishment for its "callaloo confection-or gumbo concoction."
Language is certainly set to the movements, sounds, and nuances of jazz, and both jazz and language are treated as correlatives of love. Qubcit is about the difficulties of loving across ethnic and political divides, as its four characters show. Ovide Rimbaud (you can almost hear the symbols clanging in the name) is a Haitian architect; his love-interest is Laxmi Bharati, a Hindu student of architecture. The other pair consists of Malcolm States, a jazz saxophonist of Afro-American and Mi'kmaq heritage, and Colette Chan, a Chinese law student. All are in their early or mid-twenties, which means that they are a new young generation of Quebeckers. Canto I sets out the tensions that embroil the quartet. Ovide uses sex as his lure and norm in relationships, but conservative, virginal Laxmi disdains his romantic overtures. She spouts high-flown sentiments about virtue, and her moral style is the Taj Mahal to his Le Moulin Rouge. As for the second duo, Malcolm waxes jazzily poetic about Colette, who fled from Maoist China with her parents in 1989. Colette's parents like jazz so much, they operate a jazz nightclub, but their love for the music doesn't translate into acceptance of black Malcolm, whom they shut out with their own psychological version of the Great Wall.
Canto II is devoted to rhapsodies of love, discourses on history, and lovers' quarrels. The lush poetry of Canto I (where poems seem to be everywhere on the page, even in the stage directions) devolves into something jarringly polymorphic and perverse. The text is fraught with challenges of punctuation, metre, and meaning. How is a performer to cope with such hypertrophic phrases as the following: "Polyhexamethyleneudiapide, simmering" or "Flaunt a florilegium of dazzling perfume"? These aren't exactly the sounds of jazz or even of students of architecture, law, or romance. They are the pretentious sounds of a poet in love with his own powers of language.
The foaming fountains of verse soak the story till it becomes limp, as Canto III shows all too clearly. Malcolm drinks absinthe and mourns the loss of Colette, while she tearfully reflects on the insidiousness of racism, Maoist China, and the nature of jazz! Meanwhile, Ovide contemplates suicide, while Laxmi resents his cheap moral character. The libretto channels synchronized duets in which Clarke's extraordinary flair for language continues to be exercised despite a lack of conviction in the dialogue. Clarke indulges in a parade of literary and historical allusions as if to underline his point about love's "tyrannical democracy." Then when the banality of the plot becomes obvious, the opera shrivels. For all the jazz riffs on words and floridly coloured costuming-where Clarke specifies colours that suggest moods and emotions-the libretto lacks dramatic flair. The lovers discover what? That they can't live without love, that they can love despite their obvious ethnic and cultural differences and that Quebec is all the richer for these differences. This is a message for Jacques Parizeau and his ilk, but it doesn't make for good theatre.

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