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Louis Riel’s struggles for the rights and aspirations of the Indigenous people continues today. The contemporary struggle is what makes the personal tragedy of Riel so meaningful. The challenge is for all Canadians to embrace change. The message of this opera is critical in Canada’s 150th (or should we say 15,000th) anniversary.
The Canadian Opera Company’s production Louis Riel continues its run at the Four Seasons Centre with performances April 29th, May 2nd, May 5th and May 13th. The production then moves to Ottawa for performances at the National Arts Centre in June. The COC’s production of Puccini’s Tosca will open on April 30th at the Four Seasons Centre for a run of twelve performances.
Jani Lauzon as The Folksinger and Russell Braun as Louis Riel in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Louis Riel, 2017
Photo credit: Michael Cooper
Simone Osborne as Marguerite Riel in the Canadian Opera Company's new production of Louis Riel, 2017; Photo Credit: 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 Credit: Michael Cooper
COC’s Louis Riel: a heroic Canadian tragedy shines light on a dark part of history while pointing a finger at contemporary issues!
Review by David Richards
Toronto ON April 27 2017
Harry Somers’ opera Louis Riel, currently playing at the Four Seasons Centre, has been much anticipated. Indeed, the New York Times was writing about the Canadian Opera Company’s production even before it opened. In my own anticipation of the opera, I have sensed for some time that I might find writing a review of this production a challenge. I was in the chorus of the opera in 1969 when it was recorded by CBC for television with the same cast that had premiered the work in the original COC production two years earlier. I knew something of its complexities. I had played the role of a Métis in the Buffalo hunt scene, an ‘Orangeman’ in the Toronto rally, and a member of the gallery at Riel’s trial. Nonetheless, I wasn’t prepared for what I saw on stage last night.
Russell Braun as Louis Riel in the COC's new production of Louis Riel, 2017
Photo credit: Sophie I'anson
The opera wasn’t a revival as much as a re-imagining, a re-interpretation in light of what the last fifty years has taught since it was first mounted. Director Peter Hinton was able to change the attention from a French-English conflict into one in which the Indigenous peoples were the centre of focus. By including the Michif language, Métis performers in key roles, and the Land Assembly chorus of Métis, Hinton altered the perspective to one with a contemporary message. Hinton clearly listened to Indigenous viewpoints in creating a more expansive and inclusive production.
(l-r) Clarence Frazer as James Isbister, Bruno Roy as Louis Schmidt, Billy Merasty as Poundmaker, Andrew Haji as Gabriel Dumont, Russell Braun as Louis Riel and Simone Osborne as Marguerite Riel in the Canadian Opera Company's new production of Louis Riel, 2017; Photo Credit: Michael Cooper
Great opera needs to touch the modern audience on many levels in order to be truly successful. In addition to the musical, vocal, dramatic and spectacle aspects of the performance, there must be a ring of emotional truth that grips the heart. Last night’s performance hit the mark for me on all counts. In addition to the sociological implications that were front and centre in this version of the opera, the personal story of the empathetic hero, Riel, and his victimization to a bigoted, manipulative, expansionist Canadian establishment provided the necessary emotional bond to the clear social messaging that was at the heart of this production.
One can’t help admire and empathize with Riel. He is a genuinely religious and charismatic Métis leader whose mission is to protect the rights, freedom and independence of his people against the expansionist aspirations of Sir John A. Macdonald. He is thoughtful and meditative in the intimate moments with his mother and sister who implore him to avoid the execution of Thomas Scott and later with his wife and newborn child in Montana when considering joining a second rebellion.
(l-r) Russell Braun as Louis Riel, Alain Coulombe as Bishop Taché and Allyson McHardy as Julie Riel in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Louis Riel, 2017
Photo Credit: Michael Cooper
Through religion, Riel finds the strength to take the difficult road in both instances. Russell Braun was sensational in every way possible in his role as Riel. He was charismatically powerful and equally convincing when he was alone and introspective. His lyrical yet authoritative voice exemplified the complexity of the character.
Over thirty named characters, thirty-five chorus members, and another thirty in a silent chorus rounded out the huge on-stage troupe. Particularly memorable performers included Jani Lauzon in her opening Folksinger role, Allyson McHardy as Riel’s mother, Joanna Burt as Riel’s sister, and Simone Osborne as Riel’s wife. Osborne’s ‘Kuyas’ aria was spellbinding. Other notables in the cast included Michael Colvin as Thomas Scott, Alain Coulombe as Bishop Taché, Justin Many Fingers as Buffalo Dancer, James Westman as Sir John A. Macdonald, and Cole Alvis as The Activist. The fact that the cast is all Canadian makes the production’s spectacular success all the more remarkable.
COC Music Director Johannes Debus led the COC Orchestra in spectacular fashion. The brass and percussion sections were called on continuously throughout the performance. The music was dramatically powerful, always serving the drama and was stylistically eclectic. Tonal, atonal, electronic, and folk genres were combined with music from Indigenous cultures. Whether played or listened to, atonal music can be especially challenging and even more so when complicated by sudden metrical and rhythmic shifts and percussive effects. Debus’ orchestra was a powerful component and made a huge contribution to the production.
As in many contemporary operas and theatre pieces, the sets were conceived to underscore the psychological and emotional impact of the opera. The minimalist set design by Michael Gianfrancesco worked well with the lighting designed by Bonnie Beecher and the mix of modern and period costumes of Costume Designer Gillian Gallow. By linking the past and present in the sets and costumes, there is a poignant reference to the contemporary strained relationship between Canada’s Indigenous population and the rest of the country.