Review: Noble performances, heroic efforts fail to revive opera on Louis Riel

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 production of Louis Riel. Photo: Michael Cooper

At what point does an opera revival turn into a permanent burial?

The Canadian Opera Company and NACO have put in a heroic joint effort into resurrecting Louis Riel, Harry Somers’ 1967 opera about the visionary but ultimately doomed Métis leader and father of Manitoba. But despite some noble performances from the cast and director Peter Hinton’s laudable inclusion of a strong Indigenous presence, this hopelessly dated, mediocre work remains beyond rehabilitation.

Musically, the opera is the aural equivalent of the original NAC building: 1960s concrete brutalism rendered in sound, unwelcoming, aggressively unbeautiful, difficult without any emotional payoff. Parts of it sound unsingable. Not in the virtuoso, superhuman, oh my god sense of, say, the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor. More like Somers actually had no clue how the human vocal apparatus works, or, if he did, didn’t care.

As if the swooping, stuttering, bellowing vocal parts weren’t arduous enough, the score is all tangled up in fortissimo brass and unrelenting percussion (ferociously played by NACO in the pit), making the singers’ jobs even harder.  Alexander Shelley was as precise and generous as possible, but his hands were tied by the composer’s unsympathetic writing.

It’s almost a crime that a singer of Russell Braun’s stature should be subjected to such musical cruelty. It’s also a testament to Braun’s extraordinary gifts and professionalism that he still turns in a title role performance of such shattering power and believable honesty. It’s all there, in voice, look, and gesture: Riel’s magnetic, romantic personality, his huge force of will, his faith, but also his frightening madness, spiritual conflict, and megalomania.

The supporting cast was excellent. Bass Alain Coulombe was a dignified and compassionate Bishop Taché, playing well against baritone James Westman’s boozy, canny Sir John A. As Julie, Riel’s devout, devoted mother, mezzo Allyson McHardy was equal parts steel and suffering.

Somers made Marguerite, Riel’s young wife, little more than a cipher, but he also gave her the controversial “Kuyas” aria, adapted without permission from a Nisga’a mourning song. In the role, outstanding young soprano Simone Osborne displayed a surprisingly big, fearless voice  coupled to a dewy, girlish sweetness. Her wailing and keening had an unforced despair, like the final song of a bird shot out of the sky.

The presenters and creative team have taken great pains to mitigate the opera’s cultural appropriation. Surtitles are in English, French and the Métis language, Michif. In his staging, Hinton has added the Land Assembly, a largely silent chorus of Indigenous actors; gives a prominent role to Métis folk singer Jani Lauzon; and replaces a cringe-worthy “drunken Indians” scene with an interlude featuring buffalo dancer Justin Many Fingers. At Thursday evening’s Ottawa premiere, members of the Nisga’a Nation addressed the audience before the curtain went up.

But while the impulse behind the updates is admirable, they feel self-conscious and tacked on, not organic.  Riel requires so much patching and polishing to make it less offensive (the cartoonish Irish and French Catholic stereotypes aren’t even touched), you have to wonder why this irredeemable work was ever dragged out of the mothballs in the first place. Canada 150 would have been better commemorated with a new commission. Maybe one where an Indigenous composer could tell their own story, no revisions required.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, www.talesfromtheredchair.com. Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.

  • Richard Todd

    I thought the opera had its moments, and most of Act III was quite effective. The real problem is that the work is dated, written at a time when many composers were waging a holy war on the traditions of Western Art Music. The solution? They should have commissioned a new opera.

  • Eric Dawson

    There is another Canadian opera set to an Indigenous story (also by Mavor Moore, the librettist of Riel): Ghost Dance, composed by the Calgary-based composer Greg Levin and intended to be a starring vehicle for tenor Jon Vickers at the Winter Olympics arts festival in 1988. I attended the Toronto workshop presentation, conducted by Franz-Paul Decker. The performance was received by the crowd with what sounded like genuine enthusiasm and Decker was said to be keen to move forward with the piece. But the famously cantankerous Vickers (upstairs in the church and out of sight of the general audience) hated it, and his only chance to create a new role over a three-decade career was dashed. Presumably the Canadian Music Centre possesses a tape – tastes change, but this might be music worth re-exploring.