by Lynn on May 1, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

Russell Braun as Louis Riel Photo: Sophie I’anson –

At the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont.

Composed by Harry Somers
Libretto by Mavor Moore with the collaboration of Jacques Languirand
Directed by Peter Hinton
Set by Michael Gianfrancesco
Costumes by Gillian Gallow
Lighting by Bonnie Beecher
Choreography by Santee Smith
Conductor, Johannes Debus
Cast: Vanya Abrahams
Cole Alvis
Peter Barrett
Russell Braun
Joanna Burt
Taras Chmil
Michael Colvin
Bruno Cormier
Alain Coulombe
Neil Craighead
Michael Downie
Jean-Phillippe Fortier-Lazure
Clarence Frazer
Thomas Glenn
Andrew Haji
Keith Klassen
Jani Lauzon
Andrew Love
Doug MacNaughton
Justin Many Fingers
Dion Mazerolle
Allyson McHardy
Billy Merasty
Everett Morrison
Simone Osborne
Bruno Roy
Aaron Sheppard
Charles Sy
Jan Vaculik
James Westman

A stunning, thoughtful production of an opera that captures one of Canada’s darker moments regarding Métis leader, Louis Riel as he tries to get respect and legitimacy for his followers.

NOTE: as before, I am not focusing on the music, which is not my forte, but on the theatricality of the production.

The Story. Louis Riel led the Métis Red River Rebellion in 1869 in which he was trying to protect his people’s culture and their lands. He became the leader of the Provisional Government in Fort Garry (now Winnipeg). He worked to create the province of Manitoba. Its name derives from the Cree meaning, “The God That Speaks.” In spite of much opposition (both religious and political) Riel creates the constitution for Manitoba to join Confederation and gives it to Bishop Taché, representing the Catholics in the area, to take to Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald in Ottawa. There we learn the true workings of this government. Assurances are made to Taché for amnesty for his people. At the same time an emissary of the government of Canada is sent west to offer promises to the Métis.

The political manoeuvring of Macdonald and his cronies regarding Riel and his supporters represents one of the darker aspects of Canada’s history. Great effort was made to discredit Riel as delusional and a megalomaniac because he thought that God spoke directly to him. In light of the dishonesty, subterfuge, and mendacity of Macdonald and his government towards Riel, thinking God speaks directly to you doesn’t seem such a bad thing.

The Production. Director Peter Hinton’s vision of the opera has a grand sweep and a sense of majesty. He is also mindful of the various peoples who were involved in the story: Métis, Cree, Michif, French and English. The opera is sung in these languages and the surtitles reflect that. Hinton is also mindful of the indigenous cultures involved. He illuminates this focus in his thoughtful program note part of which follows:

“ It is noteworthy that in 1967 (when Louis Riel premiered) the opera
was seen by many as an allegory for Canada’s two solitudes (French and
English) and Riel’s representation to Métis and First Nations was
ancillary to this. It is our intention that a more inclusive and
expansive history shall be restored and amended for our 2017 production.
It is a delicate balance of renewing the original spirit of the opera,
with contemporary perspectives in order to expose the opera’s colonial
biases and bring forward its inherent strengths and power.”

To begin the production, Cole Alvis, who plays The Activist, appears and introduces himself as Métis. He then informs us on whose indigenous land we are gathered and how sacred it is. The opera proper begins after this.

Hinton has a silent chorus representing Indigenous peoples who watch and bear witness. Sometimes they circle the unfolding scene, sometimes they stand in a line, watching. Their silent presence is so powerful an image and an implication. History might have tried to keep these peoples silent and invisible but Peter Hinton makes them a visible, powerful presence.

Costume designer Gillian Gallow dresses the chorus for the most part in deep red tops and pants. Very effective. Later in the opera, when Louis Riel is being tried, the court (?) the jury (?) are in two tiers of seats almost the width of the stage. All are silent so the witnesses morph into another type of observer. In this case, they are dressed in dark coats and pants.

If there is a word that sums up the production it’s “dignity.” Hinton is scrupulous in creating a sense of dignity regarding the silent chorus, the Indigenous Peoples and others who had been marginalized. They are led by Louis Riel, as played by a stalwart, serious-minded Russell Braun. Gillian Gallow has dressed him in a three piece dark suit with an understated bow-tie. The look is of a leader; a serious man who commands respect. His dignity in ruling, his compassion to a point is clear in Braun’s compelling performance.

However Gallow’s wit and sense of play comes out in her costumes for Sir John A. Macdonald (the boozie Prime Minister), Sir George-Étienne Cartier (representing Quebec) and Donald Smith, representing the Hudson’s Bay Company. They are dressed as buffoons. Sir John A. Macdonald is in a suit patterned in loud red plaid as if it is his family tartan design. Cartier is in blue checks symbolic of the colour of Quebec. And Donald Smith wears a wonderful white suit with a longish white coat but with thin coloured stripes around the bottom of the coat and the same pattern circling the pant legs, suggesting the thick coloured lines of the Hudson’s Bay coat. (Macdonald held the Hudson’s Bay Company responsible for the uprising in the Red River Valley.) Very clever and quite clear in the intent to make these men look foolish.

Michael Gianfrancesco’s set design is spare, stark and clear in conveying a sense of majesty. Interestingly the scenes with Macdonald in Ottawa are established by a large backdrop of the floor plans of what I assume is the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings. Nothing grand here. Like that.

Comment. Louis Riel was commissioned for Canada’s Centennial, 1967. It was last performed by the Canadian Opera Company in 1975. It has been performed this year to mark the country’s 150th anniversary. A lot has happened with regards to our Indigenous Peoples and how they have been treated. As Peter Hinton said in his program note, he wanted to correct the balance. I think he’s done that in spades.

Produced by the Canadian Opera Company

Opened: April 20, 2017.
Saw it: April 29, 2017.
Remaining Performances: May 2, 5, 13, 2017.
Running Time: 3 hours approx.

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