Louis Riel based on the work of composer of Harry Somers and the libretto by Mavor Moore, is directed by Peter Hinton, former head of theatre at the National Arts Centre. It opened at the NAC Thursday with the NAC Orchestra conducted by Alexander Shelley. The audience was treated to an exciting reworking of this “music drama”, as Somers called it when it was first created at the O’Keefe Centre in 1967. We now can witness a new 50th-anniversary production which brings Canada into the global realm of contemporary performance, revising 19th Century preconceived notions of Opera.
It is clear that our critical vocabulary is no longer sufficient to name what in fact we observed in Southam Hall last night but living proof that “opera” has evolved to include musical developments, reinterpretations of history and the many traces of multiple cultures that constitute modern societies. Opera has at last really become the total work of cultural expression that Wagner defined within his own aesthetic criteria –the total work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk) — in 1849.
Theatre directors are now being invited to renew operatic works. Robert Lepage created much discussion with his huge watery staging of Wagner’s Ring Trilogy at the Met where the set often seemed to overwhelm the singers. French director Patrick Chereau, with almost no operatic experience, proposed a shockingly sexy new staging of the Ring Cycle at Bayreuth and changed the face of Wagner forever. Director Jorge Lavelli has staged Mozart in France and operas in Argentina and other famous stage directors are much in demand for their capacity to locate performances in a context where the visual and the acting qualities are given as much importance as the music within the operatic event.
This production of Louis Riel gives much to consider. Peter Hinton has imposed a minimalist vision of the stage that highlights the physical and musical presence of an impassioned Louis Riel, sung by Russell Braun. The baritone brings out the whole dramatic range of Riel’s personal Calvary. He has religious visions that suggest he is possessed, at times in a near trance, moving closer to the image of a saint or a biblical prophet, called upon to lead the struggle of the Metis nation, given the status of a crown colony with no rights whatsoever at a time when Canada consisted of Ontario, Quebec , Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The meeting of ritual transformation and historical consciousness set the tone for a play that does not mean to be pure historical fact but that captures the stresses, the tensions, the fears the difficult situation which weighed on all the Metis people in the face of this struggle for recognition within the French and English conflict . Certain figures have key roles and are highlighted as well.
The anti-French and anti-Catholic governor William McDougall (baritone Doug MacNaughton)and the racism of prime minister Macdonald, a sly old political fox who becomes a slightly comic character given to the bottle (baritone James Westman) , provides much complex dramatic fuel during the meeting between the representatives of Quebec (monseigneur Tache), Cartier and the anglophone representatives. It also provides much drama when the chorus of Metis people becomes part of the physical staging that creates barriers blocking the movement of the British governor, or angry supporters of Riel who beat up the hysterical racist, foul mouthed and abusive Orangeman Thomas Scott (tenor Michael Colvin) who hates those “papist half-breeds”. Scott’s trial scene sees him pleading for his life, as he is condemned to death and executed, under the authority of Louis Riel, an event which plays an important role in Riel’s own trial.
The moments of drama are highlighted by the deep emotion in Somers’ mostly atonal music with the percussions and the deeper sounds and rhythms tapped out with metallic sounding objects and electronic material. The first scene of Act III Riel and his wife are in Sun River Montana where he has fled to avoid capture. The theatre was spellbound by the beautiful depth of soprano Simone Osborne, singing Marguerite Riel’s sad and desperate song (Kuyas, Cree for ‘long ago”), pleading with her deeply disturbed and exhausted husband not to return to Canada to continue the revolution when the Metis leaders come to ask him for his help.
In fact, Acts II and III are the most powerful because most of the scenes stand out dramatically, visually and musically
There is Scott’s trial where the Metis are all sitting around a table discussing the fate of their prisoner , a discussion which finally leads to his execution . Riel’s sister (soprano Joanna Burt) and Riel’s mother ( mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy ) –completing the trio of the Riel woman (soprano Simone Osborne Riel’s wife,) whose voices bring so much to the power of the performance, try to convince Riel to stop the killing as the drums announce the death and bring tension to an unbearable height. That was necessary of course because this scene finds its parallel in Riel’s trial scene where he is also refused a stay of execution when the judgement is pronounced and his death is sudden and disturbing. An ultimate verbal obscenity closes the performance and leaves us all shocked and ashamed. That needed no surtitle, The voice was loud and clear.
Against a background of horizontal forms, of contrasting bands of colour, of electric blue sky, that encompass the different choruses representing various group movements: the parliament from Ottawa, the excitable jury in the Riel trial, , the Metis people who first appear moving slowly out of the wings after Janie Lauzon sings a greeting and then they appear going across the stage as though they were returning from the dead, to retell their story, taken from Grandfather Commanda’s wampum belt where the idea of the new nation was laid out by the Cree for future generations. So we are told by Bryde Fresque a member of the Land Assembly. Director Hinton has created a staging that gives us Gillian Gallow’s striking costumes, groups of people who are unmovable but who constitute a backdrop of human shapes , producing sounds of traditional singing and contemporary forms that blend together beatifully.
His volumes are magnificent, the lighting effects are magic, the music highlights it all however, Act I was much less successful to my mind because the lyrics did not function easily as texts to be sung. The surtitles were dark and difficult to read, but mainly the lyrics of Act I were long discursive arguments and descriptions which zipped by on the screen following the long melodic lines that were beautiful to hear but almost impossible to translate into readable surtitles. The lyrics were not always clear when sung so the titles were necessary in all languages . I did capture the odd word and then gave up because I felt I had lost a lot of detail that explained the complex relationship between the protagonists . On the other hand the spoken lines that characterized John A. Macdonald’s Sprechgesang style were much less problematic because we could hear his spoken words clearly, directly from the stage…in English. I don’t know how the Francophones would fare with that but those I talked to said it didn’t really matter because they were listening to the music. The verbal exchanges still have dramatic importance as far as I’m concerned and we should hear them. The program does contain an excellent synopsis of the performance act by act (which members of the audience should read)and the rest of the evening seemed to have lyrics that were much more accessible to audience members with shorter sentences or elements that were repeated almost as refrains. In Act I, there are so many details in the exchanges that the rapidly disappearing translations did much to frustrate the enjoyment of that portion of the evening in spite of the powerful presence of the score that was absolutely remarkable.
An evening of Opera that clearly redefines the way historical narrative is retold, commemorated or transformed into “oral historiography”, using a traditional European model as a departure point. It unites a great variety of performative elements that blend together beautifully, setting all the artists in a contemporary model of creative imagination. If they could find an imaginative solution to the surtitle problem , it would be absolutely perfect.
Louis Riel continues Friday, and Saturday in Southam Hall
A new coproduction by the National Arts Centre, the Canadian Opera Company presented 50 years apres its creation in 1967.
With surtitles in english, french, michif and cri
Composer Harry Somers
Director Peter Hinton
Book Mavor Moore
Conductor Alexander Shelley
Set designer Michael Gianfrancocesco
Costumes Gillian Gallow
Lighting Bonnie Beecher
Choreographer Santee Smith
Concert Master Lawrence Ewashko
Michif Translator and Language Coach Norman Fleury
Cri Translator and Language Coach Billy Merasty
Louis Riel Russell Braun
Bishop Taché Alain Coulombe
Thomas Scott Michael Colvin
William McDougall Doug MacNaughton
Sir John. A. Macdonald James Weston
Julie Riel Allyson Mchardy
Sara Riel Joanna Burt
Margherite Riel Simone Osborne
Wandering Spirit, Everett Morrison
Folksinger Jani Lauzon