Louis Riel

When I was young there was a phrase used so often that it became a cliché, something to be joked about. What exactly was the “Canadian identity”, and –other than hockey or maple syrup –what was Canadian culture?

click image for information about the DVD including how to obtain

As far as those asking were concerned, it hadn’t yet been articulated. Had they looked in film or literature they wouldn’t have found much back in the 1960s. Over the next few decades, though, artists did what artists do. Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Margaret Atwood, David Cronenberg, and so many more told their stories, and in so doing, gave us stories with which to tell our own story.

It’s so simple, and so recent, that perhaps nobody realizes just how precious & new it is. The Canada to which my family came –before my birth, when my parents crossed the ocean—was a bland but safe place. Trudeau had not yet appeared to articulate the ideas of bilingualism & multi-culturalism, two central tenets of modern life in Canada.

I just watched a DVD, one of a series to commemorate the death in 1999 of composer Harry Somers. They took the recording from a CBC broadcast made in 1969 of Somers’ opera Louis Riel, one of two operas premiered in 1967 by the Canadian Opera Company. It’s a remarkable historical document for a number of reasons.

  • The opera captures some of Canada’s history: not just the story of the Métis hero Riel, but the circumstances of his life & death, including a portrayal of the bigotry with which he was executed (although I have no idea if that’s something accurate or merely a creation of librettist Mavor Moore)
  • The opera was commissioned by the Floyd S Chalmers Foundation in three languages (English, French & Cree).
  • The DVD shows some of the singing talent from almost fifty years ago, including Bernard Turgeon’s definitive portrayal of the Métis leader and visionary, sung in two languages, Donald Rutherford as Sir John A Macdonald, Roxolana Roslak as Riel’s wife Marguerite, and other singers of note such as Alan Crofoot, Joseph Rouleau, Patricia Ridout, Mary Morrison, Peter Milne and Howell Glynne.
  • The CBC broadcast re-framed the historical events within a contemporary context, given that there were contemporary echoes in Québec, even citing Pierre Trudeau’s words at the beginning & end.

Some aspects of the broadcast don’t wear well with the years. The wigs / hair on some of the singers, for example look rather artificial, although I think it was one of the first times that an opera production meant for a big stage had been captured in the intimacy of a camera. In other words the DVD is likely the COC production seen from up close, and so naturally there are a few blemishes showing. For some moments the camera-work is sensitive, even though the acting is often oversized, more proper for a big stage rather than film or television.

Yet the main portrayals are superb. Bernard Turgeon is convincing in both languages (and as I didn’t follow the libretto closely he may also have some lines in Cree: I’m not sure), on the edge between a kind of vulnerable passion and religious fanaticism. The compositional style is the modernist idiom that was brand new in the first half of the century, as in Wozzeck, but perhaps conventional in some TV dramas by the 50s and 60s.  Somers’ idiom includes some dissonant brass and string chords, as well as some whimsical woodwind writing, often associated with the political discourse for the scenes in Ottawa.. Turgeon sounds very comfortable with his music, always illuminating his singing with the passions of Louis Riel, poised somewhat like Joan of Arc between inspiration and madness.

For the rest, I’m less certain as to whether the quality of what we’re seeing reflects the composition or the performer. Moore’s libretto offers several witty moments for some characters. Thomas Park plays a key role in the first part of the opera, as Thomas Scott, a quarrelsome loudmouth asking for trouble. He gets himself executed, and becomes the martyr who later brings about Riel’s downfall.  You can’t take your eyes off Park whenever he’s onscreen.

Donald Rutherford is given marvelous lines by Moore to work with, as Sir John A Macdonald. One scene ends with Macdonald singing to the Bishop Taché “touché, Taché”. In another scene, Taché arrives saying “Sir John your health is in my prayers”, to which our first PM replies “So that’s where it’s gone”. Most of the role is played with the camera in very tight, so Rutherford has no choice but to be a smooth performer: as Macdonald likely must have been.

Conducted by Victor Feldbrill I can’t find any credit for an orchestra on the DVD. While it might have been the Toronto Symphony when presented at the O’Keefe Centre, perhaps there were some substitute players, which might explain the lack of a clear credit.

I’m thinking of this now, having just posted something about the CBC and their shrinking budgets. Who will champion Canadian culture? The CBC no longer have their orchestra, likely can’t commission so many (if any) original works by Canadian composers.

Does Canada still need champions of Canadian Culture? The COC once were big champions of Canadian culture. Indeed a friend of mine recently told me that there’s a charter somewhere stating that the COC have a responsibility to uphold Canadian culture & talent. Sometimes I feel that’s what the Ensemble Studio represent, a pathway for Canadian talent, although other times I feel the studio is simply a repository of talent for the company, a ready answer to critics (like moi), even though I am often frustrated at how often the talented graduates vanish, never to be seen on a COC stage.

But in the meantime, as we wait for a newly composed main-stage opera from the COC –The Golden Ass was their last I believe—the fiftieth anniversary revival of Riel is coming soon. Rufus Wainwright’s Hadrian may not satisfy those within the classical composer fraternity who must feel bypassed by Alexander Neef’s decision to approach a popular composer. Yet Wainwright’s composition –whatever its strengths or weaknesses—is Canadian culture too.

For those who can’t wait, Louis Riel is available on DVD from the Canadian Music Centre.

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3 Responses to Louis Riel

  1. David Geary says:

    Since I was in Riel, both the performances in 1967 and 68 and the CBC production, I can add details here. The TV production was filmed over a period of three days, i think it was may, 1969. We rehearsed ahead of time as well, of course. Although it was based on the stage production, which Leon Major had done, it was adapted for the TV production by Franz Kramer. I don’t think Leon was even there, but I woudn’t swear to it. The costumes were the same as for the stage production, but the set was completely different. The sound was recorded live during filming, although there may have been a chorus scene or two which were recorded ahead of time. Actually four languages are sung, not three. in addition to english, french and Cree (which only Marguerite Riel sings, Riel sings to her in french) in the scene in the church the chorus sings in latin. The cast was almost the same as on the stage, except that Allan Crofoot replaced John Arab in one of the two roles which John had sung on stage, (Crofoot was much more convincing as an Irishman) and David Astor, who is in the TV production wasn’t in the stage version. I don’t remember whom he replaced. Cornelis Opthof was Sir John A in 1967. I think Don Rutherford replaced him in 1968, and not just for the TV version, but I may be wrong. Opthof was a great singer, but miscast in the role, but Don was far better. It is interesting that people often complain about operatic performances seeming exagerated in closeup on TV: I’ve never felt this, maybe because being onstage myself I’m used to seeing performances like that. But I also feel that opera is a larger than life art form and performances should be as well. Otherwise, I wonder why they are singing! One very interesting thing: evidently the original text for Marguerite’s lullaby was quite different. Something along the ines of “We lived in peace and freedom, fishing and hunting then the white man came and destroyed everything, and we hate him” Mavor Moore went to an indian reservation to have it translated into cree, which was fine until they got to the word “Hate.” The word “hate” didn’t exist in the cree language! The original production was the most exciting thing I’ve ever been involved in. We all felt we were in at the birth of a masterpiece. I was in both Riel and the other opera, “Ginger Coffey” and the difference between the excitement at the Riel rehearsals and the depression at the Coffey rehearsals was enormous. Torel staged it and I imagine he was furious with himself that he’d got himself mixed up with the wrong opera! I remember once he was working on the final scene and looked out into the auditorium and said “Has anybody any idea what to do with this? I’ll pay you!” It was a big flop, although probably not really all that terrible. The fina line was “In a couple of years we will have forgotten that this ever happened!” I was always surprised no reviewer used that line!

    • barczablog says:

      Thank you for bearing witness David!

      My memories of the originals are dim (for instance i only remember Opthof as being less intelligible than Rutherford, nothing else about his portrayal… But considering how witty the role is, i suppose that’s crucial.)

      Were you in the Searle Hamlet at the Opera School around that time? Rutherford was really good in that as i recall.

      A friend of mine was in Coffey (i was 12 as was he: in the boy’s chorus in the church, taken from our neighbourhood in Toronto as I recall). I recall aspects of it as being fairly good. Mignon Dunn was wonderful as I recall, Harry Theyard quite affecting. But the attempt to make opera out of a pastiche of quasi-realistic scenes is likely the problem with the opera. It’s inevitably weak, compared to Riel.

  2. Pingback: 2014 CD and DVD reviews | barczablog

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