TORONTO: Louis Riel
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Louis Riel

Canadian Opera Company

In Review Louis Riel lg 717
Louis Riel in Toronto, with Russell Braun
© Michael Cooper

LOUIS RIEL, the opera by Harry Somers and Mavor Moore commissioned for the Canadian centenary in 1967, was hungrily received into the national canon. Louis Riel was the first opera written by a Canadian to have its premiere at Canadian Opera Company, and its artistic merits have never been easily distinguishable from its genealogical ones; fifty years later, COC remains the only professional company to have performed it, most recently in 1975. The opera’s reappearance in Toronto this year for Canada’s sesquicentennial celebrations reinforced its politically charged status, which is why director Peter Hinton’s new production has faced such public scrutiny. Hinton’s debut staging with the company marked an attempt to update the musty politics of Riel.

The opera tells the story of two nineteenth-century uprisings by Métis and Indigenous, Francophone and Catholic inhabitants in the Canadian west, led by the messianic Louis Riel, against strong-armed decrees from the expansionist and more Anglophone and Protestant east. Louis Riel’s themes of land rights and self-determination remain live wires half-buried in the Canadian psyche, experienced daily, with varying degrees of violence, by the nation’s Indigenous Peoples. Somers appropriated a sacred Nisga’a song in a now unthinkable way, but even choices that seemed daring in 1967—such as elevating the Métis Riel from rebel to father of the province of Manitoba, or the portrayal of Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, as a lying boozer—appear halfhearted in 2017. Fifty years after its premiere, the colonialism in Louis Riel needed to be confronted and repudiated.

The scope of the opera is surely a factor in the paucity of Louis Riel revivals to date: the original production had a cast of sixty, including thirty-five named roles and six principals, and almost twenty scene changes. The score draws from French–Canadian and Métis music, Indigenous song and the Roman Catholic Mass, without employing conventional arias. For this production, Hinton has added two choruses—a silent one called the Land Assembly and a singing chorus, the Parliament. The Assembly is played by Indigenous and Métis performers whose silence is the opera’s silence, since they have no voice in the original. The Parliament sits in two rows behind the action and observes it, as if the opera were on trial—which it is. There are now supertitles in Cree and dialogue in the Métis language, Michif.

These intelligent moves added refreshing ambiguity and an apt strain of bitterness to an otherwise straightforward drama, but two other, more radical decisions, proved most affecting. The Git Hayetsk Dancers shared a victory song before the performance, and a stupid drinking scene in the opera has been replaced by a newly choreographed buffalo-hunt dance, sung by Jani Lauzon, a British Columbian performer of Métis heritage. This was another kind of music, a contemporary song of living memory and ritual. “We treat our songs as human beings,” Git Hayetsk’s Mike Dangeli explained. The contrast with the opera raised an obvious question: why not offer the stage to a new Indigenous work in 2017, rather than mounting a self-critical revival of a piece fifty years old?

Despite its contradictions and the difficulties inherent in the original material, the new production is outstanding. Johannes Debus never let the tension flag in the pit, maintaining an air of imminent violence for three hours. The all-Canadian cast members acquitted themselves honorably on the brightly graphic stage set, with especially memorable performances from Alain Coulombe, as Bishop Taché, and James Westman, as Macdonald. In the title role, baritone Russell Braun was unforgettable. The opera’s dramatic success entirely depends on the magnetism that its Riel can bring to bear on the audience; Braun inhabited his role so completely that his suffering incited a kind of sadism—one wanted Riel to keep suffering, because Braun did it so beautifully. When Riel saw God in a bonfire, an orchestrally unsupported melisma bloomed into a garden of terrors—a wail at once pleading and possessing, as if for an instant Riel saw the great plan and his own death in it.

The politically motivated editing of Riel has made it a better work of art. While it remains sadly rare for opera to join important national political conversations, COC’s new staging of Louis Riel shows how quickly that can change, and how much there remains to do.  —Lev Bratishenko 

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