Louis Riel’s Second Coming

Russell Braun as Louis Riel in Canadian Opera Company’s 2017 production of Louis Riel (director Peter Hinton). Photo credit Sophie I’anson

As the saying (approximately) goes, one person’s religious fanatic is another person’s hero, and Harry Somers and Mavor Moore’s multilayered opera Louis Riel certainly does not offer itself, in its ur-text, as a piece of simple pro-Riel propaganda. Had Riel fended off the forces of the Canadian federation, his Métis governance state would have probably been a theocracy with a charismatic governor, and not even notionally liberal—though the libretto in his last speech has him saying a verse on “man having rights” (perhaps the meaning here is treaty rights?). His first long aria at the end of Act 1 reveals that he hears God’s voice and feels directly and intimately called—“I am David” is its final verse—and upon his return to Canada from the exile he is given a scene in a Catholic church in Saskatchewan where he is a self-assured prophet with a large following. Riel was a figure akin to Ignazio di Loyola and Joan of Arc: not exactly a democrat. God spoke to him, and even skipped the Pope to go straight for this Prairie prophet.

He was of the future, however, in one way, and it’s an extremely important way: he was a bi-racial North American, and proud of it, while the Anglos in the opera throw around “half-breed” as an insult. He is also today read by some theorists of Canadian citizenship as a harbinger of the post-Trudeau I multiculturalism and bilingualism, the type of post-ethnic nationhood that we’ve been trying to work out in this country over the last 40 years. Not so, says a Métis scholar who contributed an opinion piece in the COC program for this new production of the opera. Dr. Adam Gaudry of University of Alberta argues that for Riel, land treaties were about staying separate but equal, not merging and integrating cultures and ethnicities into something new. And there are a number of Native rights groups today in Canada who argue against the Native integration in the general hodgepodge of Canadian citizenship; we’ve melted far enough in that particular pot, we’re now concerned with protecting the customs, reviving the languages and preserving the bloodlines. (Don’t act shocked. Huge majority of people on this planet still don’t want to marry outside their own ethnic or religious group. Most of your extended family to start with, whatever your ethnic background is.)

So Riel is a contradictory figure. (The periodic think pieces that appear in Canadian media in favour of exonerating and rehabilitating Riel are puzzling to me. Let the contradictory figure of the past be a contradictory figure of the past, why scrub him clean.) But Somers and Moore don’t exactly excoriate him in the opera either and in fact grant him a great, tragic dimension. He *is* a hero, in the sense of hero being a brave man who is blind to his constitutive flaws and who will be done in by those very flaws. Yes, and also by the encroaching armed forces of a nation in the making. Marxist historians would say “world-historical” forces—but that’s retrospective determinism, certainly in the case of Canada, which still feels like an unfinished business and up for grabs as a nation state in so many ways.

Riel is also given the most extraordinary music of this largely atonal score, solo arias of immense expressivity, variety, and power sung a cappella or to sparse instrumentation. In this new COC revival directed by Peter Hinton, Russell Braun sings Riel and as perfectly as anybody can come close to. He is certainly a little less butch, a little more pensive and Hamlet-like than the original Riel, Bernard Turgeon, but this singer-added Riel vulnerability works miracles for the character.

The major new thing that Hinton brought in is the invitation to the First Nations onto the stage and the turning of the spotlight onto the Métis and the Cree even more obviously as the centre of the story. You’d think that it would have occurred somebody in the original production to include a contingent of Native artists in the creative team or among the cast, but looks like it hadn’t. At the time of its first performances in the late 60s and early 70s, Riel was analyzed mainly as an opera on the FrancoCanadian-AngloCanadian conflict that makes up so much of Canadian history, even though more than half of the characters are Métis. Somers actively sought and employed musical material transcribed from the Native sources, for example for the Kuyas aria sung by Riel’s wife Marguerite (in this production sung by the soprano Simone Osborne, who handled this insanely demanding aria flawlessly; too bad the role is so short).

Hinton introduced a silent chorus that the original production did not have, what he describes in Director’s Notes as the Land Assembly which silently observes the action in every scene, sometimes apart, sometimes among other characters. He also replaced a scene of drunken revelry of the rebels with a scene of a group dance with the First Nations dancer Justin Many Fingers as the soloist. The quiet presence of Jani Lauzon, a grey-haired Métis singer and performer elegant in her red pant suit improved just about every scene because it somewhat attenuated the significant problem of the invisibility of women in Riel: without Lauzon, there are only three singing roles for women among 25 male singers, and they’re (hold on to your hats) sister, mother and wife to the Main Man.

What didn’t work for me was that the production is pretty minimalist. I think going minimalist in large multilayered operas is a cop-out, but in general too I don’t have a predilection for minimalism on operatic stage. (See Tim Albery’s Götterdämmerung, Carsen’s Iphigenie, Ivo van Hove’s anything…) There are long scenes of almost legalese debates in Riel during which there’s nowhere to look but at the blond wood panel in the back of the stage and the odd chair and table. About that blond wood panel: it reminds very much of the inside of the Four Seasons Centre, was that a hint? Yes, every opera is about that opera audience sitting right there, Hinton is right, but the set as the sets go was kind of dull.

The “Ottawa” set was better solved, but of course we are never shown the pseudo-Gothic interiors of the Parliament (it’s an iconic and much beloved building that would be perceived more positively than the director would necessarily want). Instead, the architectural plan of the Centre Block drops down as the background to the scenes among Sir John A., Cartier, Bishop Taché and “the representative of the commerce”, Hudson Bay’s Donald Smith. Baritone James Westman as Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald was another case of vocally and dramatically hand-meets-glove casting. Most of Sir John A.’s material is in the form of Sprechgesang—he doesn’t get any arias, but the only moments in the score that are comedic are to do with him: the trio of powerful men that announces that everything will be well when the opposite is about to happen; the drunk music in a scene of his hangover before dealing with the matters of the state (as Opera Rambling’s partner Katja put it last night, “most people in this opera are drunk most of the time”; fair).

Somers’ score operates in onslaughts and silences (moderation is for later in history) and I had forgotten how eventful and full of contrasts it is. The COC’s brass and percussions in particular get to do a lot of work. The only simpleminded tune in the entire opera is the mobbing chant of the Ontario protestants as they work up the anger against Riel, “We’ll Hang Him Up the River with the yah-yah-yah”. It’s also insidiously earworm-y, which was probably the composer’s naughty joke. Riel’s forces of course are defeated and he is hanged for treason. The silent chorus turns around one by one and looks straight to the audience after Riel goes down. Lights off, curtain calls, out we all go, and then there it is, the mobbing tune reappears, as a strange aftertaste—and a reminder how easy it is to hear, how ever susceptible we are to the call of the mob, then and now.

Continues at the COC April 23, 26, 29, May 2, 5, and 13.

(l-r, foreground) Russell Braun as Louis Riel, Michael Colvin as Thomas Scott and Charles Sy as Ambroise Lépine in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Louis Riel, 2017. Photo: Michael Cooper
(l-r) Peter Barrett as Col. Garnet Wolseley, James Westman as Sir John A. Macdonald, Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure as Sir George-Étienne Cartier and Alain Coulombe as Bishop Taché. Photo: Michael Cooper
(centre) Justin Many Fingers (Mii-Sum-Ma-Nis-Kim) as The Buffalo Dancer in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Louis Riel, 2017. Photo: Michael Cooper
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