Review: Debut of Ian Cusson’s new lullaby for Riel opera a triumph

Ian Cusson is the composer of Le Loup de Lafontaine. Photo: Leemarc Lao

When NACO and the Canadian Opera Company asked Métis composer Ian Cusson to write a new soprano aria for Louis Riel, they gave him a nearly impossible task. I can just imagine how that offer was presented: “Oh, hey Ian, we want you to come up with a replacement for Kuyas, the most famous aria in the most famous Canadian opera. You need to respect Harry Somers’ original style and orchestration, but do it in a way that isn’t imitation or pastiche. Did we mention that Kuyas is super controversial and has offended the Nisga’a for 50 years? So if you could do something to fix that at the same time, that’d be great. Oh, and it can’t be more than six minutes long.”

Cusson’s answer, Dodo mon tout petit, had its world premiere at the NAC Thursday night. It is, simply put, a triumph. 

Cusson has taken Somers’ ungainly orchestration and bent it into loveliness. The style is still recognizably of Somers, but less angular, more refined and forgiving, softly limned by nocturnal woodwinds. In Cusson’s version of this lullaby — where Riel’s young wife “confides to the night” all her dreams for their infant son — the dramatic and emotional impact of the original are retained, but tempered by maternal tenderness and hope. Compared to the frenzied wailing of Kuyas, the moment feels more intimate, more generous and, above all, more respectful of the dignity of this strong Métis woman. 

Wearing a stunning scarlet Métis sash draped diagonally over her shoulder, Métis soprano Melody Courage’s gave a nuanced, sincere, deeply moving performance. She has a clear, powerful upper register, with beautifully floated piano notes, but once she got into her weaker lower range, the dense orchestra overpowered her almost to the point of inaudibility. Her projection issues were not helped by her sometimes imprecise French diction. 

Two other works by Indigenous Canadian composers rounded out the first half. Winnipeg-based Andrew Balfour, who is of Cree descent, writes consistently impressive, highly distinctive music for choir. He conducted the Ewashko Singers in his Ambe, which he based on an original song of welcome “Come in, two-legged beings”  by traditional drummer and singer Cory Campbell. The choir did a commendable job singing Balfour’s fun but tricky score from memory, and in Ojibwe too.

Odawa composer Barbara Croall’s Zasakwaa, for mezzo-soprano, flute and chamber orchestra, is a richly evocative meditation on the coming of winter. Instruments slide, whisper and creak around a clock-steady time signature, creating the illusion of slowly encroaching cold and ensuing hibernation of all living creatures. Indigenous mezzo Marion Newman’s stately, expressive voice embodied the Anishnaabe female earth spirit Mindemoyenh, while NACO principal flutist Joanna G’froerer brought her virtuosity to bear on her extensive part, portraying whistling early winter winds or the silver conversation of birds. 

In the second half, well-known Indigenous performer Tom Jackson narrated Grieg’s complete incidental music for Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, featuring a full complement of actors, vocal soloists, and choir.  Alexander Shelley, NACO and the singers supplied an abundance of rustic charm and theatrical flair (the troll-choir sounded deliciously blood-thirsty). It was interesting to hear some of the lesser known excerpts, including one strange scene involving horny herd girls looking for trolls to replace their absent or useless boyfriends. Who knew Norwegian troll-hunting was for amorous as well as violent ends?

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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, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.