Reviewed by on    Opera   , ,

1078 – Russell Braun as Louis Riel (centre) in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Louis Riel, 2017. Conductor Johannes Debus, director Peter Hinton, set designer Michael Gianfrancesco, costume designer Gillian Gallow, lighting designer Bonnie Beecher, and choreographer Santee Smith. Photo: Michael Cooper

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

Partial  Cast 

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