Louis Riel is a glorious think piece, on stage at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto
Even mid-performance, reviews of Louis Riel at the Canadian Opera Company were being expressed all around me. The individual sitting behind me chewed gum loudly and sighed repeatedly, exasperatedly, during all of the second and third acts. Beside me, a young woman sat rapt and motionless, her face slack with pleasure. It’s a rare opera that inspires such extreme reactions, but even the cheerful bar manager at the first-floor bar commented that she had heard so many opinions and none of them were tepid. “Everyone has something to say about this one,” she said. “It’s quite different.” And so it is.
Louis Riel is a story of the creation of Manitoba, commissioned for the 100th anniversary of confederation and written by Harry Somers and Mavor Moore (son of Dora Mavor Moore, the theatrical giant who, among other accomplishments, helped to found the Stratford festival and whose eponymous award is the Obie of Toronto theatre). Riel, a Métis leader, was executed by the nascent government of Canada for treason after leading two rebellions against colonizing forces that sought to strip the indigenous people of their legal (and actual) personhood and claim ownership of the land.
The opera itself is…not very opera-like, in some ways – notably, it features a lot less singing than many do. If someone had told me I was attending a dance performance with vocal embellishment by a renowned operatic baritone (Russell Braun, who plays Riel), the performance I saw would have made perfect sense. There was also significantly more acting than one expects at the opera; less of characters standing stock-still singing an oratorio describing their feelings and more of them showing in their face and movements.
The dance/movement choreography was outstanding, overall, except for the business with the wheat sheaves in the third act during which it was clear that no one but Jani Lauzon, playing The Folksinger, had any idea what they were supposed to be doing, about which the less said, the better. The silent chorus was used to excellent effect in this version of Louis Riel, with an ongoing silent presence of the Land Keepers (of the Metis of Red River Nation) being present onstage during many of the scenes. In addition, during several key moments, a panel at the back of the stage opened to reveal an additional audience, often in modern business clothes and seated on Parliamentary style benches.
(In my head, I quietly hummed “History has its eyes on you,” though that made me wish for the entire story to be turned over the the capable hands of Lin-Manuel Miranda and then I had to refocus on the performance before me.)
Russell Braun, widely acknowledged as Canada’s premiere baritone, gives a tremendous performance both vocally and performatively. He’s excellent to watch, and really gives his all to the work. I don’t think this odd opera would have been half as successful without his anchor, both in terms of the pleasure of listening to him and in the gravitas he brings to his character. Bass Alain Coulombe, as Bishop Taché, does similar work – not just with his deep delicious pudding voice but also his acting skill.
I was also moved by the work of soprano Simone Osborne as Marguerite Riel in the third act, singing a contentious song (based heavily on a Nisga’a mourning song recorded somewhat under duress and never meant to be used in this way) with talent and intention that felt honoring. It felt, as I read that it should, like a prayer.
A variety of things have been done to this performance, in order to bring it closer into alignment with our current, fractionally less racist, Canadian cultural values about the treatment of First Nations people during the process of colonization and confederation. These are detailed extensively in the program and on the COC website, as well as during interviews with director Peter Hinton. Ultimately, the effect is to make Riel a much more sympathetic character than he was set up to be in the original version – we’re not glad and relieved that the rebel was executed, we’re either resigned to it as a political expediency, or mad about it as an affront against sovereign indigenous people.
In the end, this is a politically complex project and a somewhat troubled opera, restaged in an updated version because of I’m-not-sure-what motivation. In the cracks and questions, though, Louis Riel does many of the things great artworks should do – it questions. It considers. It requires that the audience grapple to get the good of it; a patron who seeks to be merely entertained might as well stay home and watch the ballgame. But the one who will work may take home a treasure of new questions.
- Louis Riel is playing until May 13th, 2017 at Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (145 Queen Street West)
- Show times are 7:300 PM on April 26, May 2, 5, & 13, with an additional matinees at 2:00 PM on April 29th.
- Ticket prices range from $45 – $220. Patrons under 30 can purchase tickets for $22 or $35 here.
- Tickets are available online, or through the box office at 416-363-8231 (long distance 1-800-250-4653).
Photo of Russell Braun as Louis Riel, Michael Colvin as Thomas Scott and Charles Sy as Ambroise Lépine by Michael Cooper