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A harrowing epic

The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
04/20/2017 -  & April 23*, 26, 29, May 2, 5, 13 (Toronto), June 15, 17 (Ottawa) 2017
Harry Somers: Louis Riel
Russell Braun (Louis Riel), Simone Osborne (Marguerite Riel), Allyson McHardy (Julie Riel), Joanna Burt (Sara Riel), James Westman (Sir John A. Macdonald), Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure (Sir George-Etienne Cartier, Father André), Alain Coulombe (Bishop Taché), Cole Alvis (The Activist), Jani Lauzon (Folksinger, Elzéar Lagimodière, Court Clerk, Prison Guard), Doug MacNaughton (William McDougall, Judge), Keith Klassen (British Soldier, Hudson’s Bay Scout, Father Moulin), Charles Sy (Ambroise Lépine), Michael Colvin (Thomas Scott), Bruno Cormier (Joseph Delorme), Jan Vaculik (Janvier Ritchot), Michael Downie (Elzéar Goulet), Vanya Abrahams (André Nault), Taras Chmil (Baptiste Lépine), Andrew Love (Dr. Schultz), Thomas Glenn (Charles Mair), Neil Craighead (O’Donoghue, B.B. Osler), Aaron Sheppard (Donald Smith, Sir Frederick Middleton), Peter Barrett (Colonel Garnet Wolseley), Andrew Haji (Gabriel Dumont), Clarence Frazer (James Isbister), Billy Merasty (Poundmaker), Bruno Roy (Louis Schmidt, Dr. François Roy), Everett Morrison (Wandering Spirit), Dion Mazerolle (F.X. Lemieux), Justin Many Fingers (Buffalo Dancer)
The Canadian Opera Company Chorus, Sandra Horst (chorus master), The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Johannes Debus (conductor)
Peter Hinton (director), Michael Gianfrancesco (set designer), Gillian Gallow (costume designer), Bonnie Beecher (lighting designer), Santee Smith (choreographer)

R. Braun (© Sophie l’Anson)

Harry Somers (1925-1999) composed Louis Riel for the Canadian Opera Company as a signature event for Canada’s centennial year, 1967. It received three performances in Toronto and then two at Montreal’s Expo 67. It was revived in 1968 (for three more performances) and a studio television production made in 1969. In 1975 it was given four more performances in Toronto plus three in Ottawa and one in Washington, DC. A recording was made of the Washington performance. All this activity meant that it was quite the operatic phenomenon of the day and in the decades since, its revival has been a perennial topic of conjecture.

Louis Riel is probably the most polarizing figure in Canadian history. He was a Métis (people of French and Cree background), well-educated and ardently religious. In 1870, at the age of 25, he led a provisional government in the Red River colony (now in Manitoba) while the area was about to be transferred from Hudson Bay Company control to the recently-confederated Canada. His group was understandably concerned about their property and other rights under a new government. Amid the Red River Rebellion (as it came to be known) his group executed a man from Ontario, Thomas Scott, who instantly became a martyr amongst a fervent anti-French, anti-Catholic faction in English Canada. The new province came into being, but Riel was persona non grata. After stints in mental hospitals due to messianic tendencies (and twice being elected to parliament in absentia) he settled in Montana with his young family. In 1885, though, the Northwest Rebellion broke out in what is now central Saskatchewan, when relocated Métis and aboriginal groups took arms against encroaching settlers. He was encouraged by his old cohorts to return to Canada and lead the rebellion, which he did. The new transcontinental railway quickly brought in thousands of troops and the rebellion was put down with the death of some 130 people. Riel was tried for treason and hanged, thus becoming a martyr for the ongoing struggle for native rights.

The libretto by Mavor Moore (with assistance from Jacques Languirand for the French passages) employs quotes from historical accounts, giving the work a quasi-documentary quality. Thus there are 38 named roles, all representing historical figures. The resulting opera covers a 15-year period and is in three acts with 17 scenes, bouncing back and forth between the Red River colony, Ottawa, Toronto, Montana, and Saskatchewan. The structure is very much like that of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, and both works deal with tortured episodes in a country’s history.

The music begins with a good deal of drumming, conjuring up what we think of as aboriginal music. However Somers did not employ pentatonic music nor anything resembling kitsch. The music can be very brash, although aural space is given for the voices. Some vocal lines are awkward, notably those for Bishop Taché, the Catholic prelate who served as a negotiator between the frontier and Ottawa.

Somers was not an electronic composer but electronic sounds are used very effectively in four places, conjuring up something in the near distance, such as the land itself or voices in Riel’s head. Overall the music is atonal in an expressive (non-academic) way. Much of the vocals are parlando, often unaccompanied, but some with roiling orchestral underlay. On the whole the large cast give vivid performances.

One outright borrowing from aboriginal music occurs in Act III when Riel’s wife, Marguerite, sings a lullaby, “Kuyas” (“Long ago”). I have always felt it was a notably sad lullaby and it turns out it is actually a song of mourning transcribed by ethno-musicologists from the Nisga’a people of the Pacific coast, so not at all authentic to the prairie-based Métis. However, the use of a mourning song with its references to a deceased hunter helps bring forth a recognition of the passing way of life that is central to the events of the drama. (There is also an ongoing debate about whether Somers had the right to use the song, known as The Song of Skateen.)

The title character appears in 10 of the 17 scenes and simply must carry a lot of dramatic weight as the role rises to a frenzied intensity in each act. Russell Braun is phenomenal - it is as if the role were specially crafted for him, especially in Act I when he begins to imagine himself as the reincarnation of the biblical King David. Also outstanding is Simone Osborne as his wife, who is wonderful in the work’s only extended peaceful scene when she sings the melancholy lullaby. This is immediately followed by the scene when Riel’s supporters burst in to implore him to join the second rebellion. What follows is a thrilling ensemble in which she voices fierce but futile opposition.

The second dominant role is that of Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald, who appears in five scenes. He and Riel never met. Somers created a contrasting sound world for the Ottawa scenes, with circus-like music to set off the cynical activities portrayed. Any Canadian who knows national history (which is not every Canadian) knows that Sir John was a calculating politician (after all he was PM for almost 19 years during a turbulent era aside from the Riel problems) plus we know he was a legendary drinker. It is difficult to dramatize government policy disputes; the most entertaining thing to do is resort to satire. However this becomes repetitive and heavy-handed, although James Westman as usual delivers a strong performance.

Further heavy-handedness occurs re the repetitious bigoted outbursts from those opposed to Riel and his followers. It certainly represents widespread opinion of the day, but it leaves an impression that bigotry was the sole reason for Riel’s execution. In the trial no mention is made of the rebellion’s casualties.

The staging: as William Faulkner wrote “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Many of the issues depicted in the opera are current today. Director Peter Hinton has added two roles for Métis or native performers and changed the role of Poundmaker to a speaking role to accommodate the noted aboriginal actor, Billy Merasty. He has also augmented the group of supers with 15 Métis/First Nations people termed the Land Assembly who are a silent presence in relevant scenes. This is to help counterbalance the fact that the majority of roles are taken by non-aboriginal or non-Métis performers, but the end result of their passivity is to emphasize their marginalized situation.

Another directorial decision: as the opera is written in a mix of English and French, there are surtitles in both languages. In addition, there are surtitles throughout in Michif, the Métis language, which combines elements from French and Cree. Very few people speak it. There are also a few titles in Cree. It is hard not to see this as tokenism.

The COC Orchestra and Chorus under Johannes Debus give committed performances. The end result of the work, though, is not cathartic. One feels bludgeoned by the repetitiveness of both the hammering music and hectoring drama.

The production is co-produced with Ottawa’s National Arts Centre where it will have two performances in June.

Michael Johnson



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