When I look back at my childhood, the way the word “Indian” was used and abused, I can barely recognize where we were and where we’ve come. The past two years have been especially transformative, with the Truth & Reconciliation Commission’s report, with so many promises made by those in power and so many intriguing works of art, thinking of Kent Monkman’s paintings, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Going Home Star, and ambitious programming of concerts here in Toronto.
While I often doubt leaders –for instance I’m trying to sort through the personas of Justin Trudeau— a walking endorsement for the virtues of drama education if ever there was one—my hat is off to Alexander Neef, the General Director of the Canadian Opera Company. Pressured by artists, critics & donors to make the COC relevant especially in this our Sesquicentennial year, he put not just the COC’s money but his reputation on the line the past couple of years. Tonight was a genuine occasion, the premiere of Peter Hinton’s daring re-imagining of Somers & Moore’s 1967 opera Louis Riel, complete with additional performances for much of the hour before the show in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, in the lobby of the Four Seasons Centre. I think if the show had even been mediocre or bad, Neef kept his end of the bargain, giving us our Canadian opera.
But it’s a marvelous creation. I am reminded of Richard Bradshaw’s stated aim, not to make the best opera, but to create the best theatre in Toronto, and that’s indeed what we were seeing. I couldn’t help feeling –in a theatre shared between those who would bravo and those who would whoop, between those coming from the opera side, those in the theatre side, plus those drawn by the Indigenous artists and their culture—that we were experiencing a genuine conversation, a meeting of worlds, of people with different assumptions, goals and objectives.
Above the stage it was enacted for us, in surtitles in three languages (although there were more than three, when you add Michif and Cree and the Latin words of liturgy to the French & English), the singers sometimes shifting from one language to another. The boundaries between cultures were fluid, as they were between disciplines –as we watched Indigenous dance, watched a silent chorus bearing witness to the action, alongside the usual participants of the opera.
I understand that Peter Hinton was brought to this project because of his history working with Indigenous artists, for instance a King Lear that starred Billy Merasty, who appeared in a small role tonight, but whose presence was huge every time he came onstage. What was unsaid or unsung was as important as what was heard and enacted. Hinton explained his objective with the chorus, which included a silent group, as though bearing witness. I had thought it would merely be to frame the action but it was so much more than that, as the legitimacy of what we saw and heard was altered, the centre of gravity for the show shifted.
Some parts of the show work better than others, but it may be that nerves were a factor on opening night. I found the opening song of the original score, a somewhat bluesy song now sung by the luminous Jani Lauzon, redeemed a passage that disturbed me when I first heard it. We hear of Riel sitting in his stolen chair using his stolen silver, and this time I felt a connection and compassion that was always missing for me in the older version.
I have some quibbles, that again might be a case of opening night nerves. I wondered that conductor Johannes Debus—who led a fast, taut reading of this difficult modernist score—sometimes let his brass overpower a cast leaning heavily on lower voices. Yes they played with passion & commitment, those trombones and horns snarling like the wronged id of a whole nation, filling the space with their dark, nasty sounds; but unfortunately they share the same register as the three biggest roles:
- Russell Braun as Louis Riel
- James Westman as John A Macdonald
- Alain Coulombe as Bishop Taché
I’m concerned that these gentlemen will be exhausted before the end of the run if they keep facing such big sounds. Braun’s Sprechstimme (if that’s what it’s supposed to be) danced on the edge of speech, sometimes howling and raging rather than singing. He made the visionary scenes very sympathetic, perhaps because he underplayed them, compared to what I recall from Bernard Turgeon, the originator of the role who gave us more of an image of a visionary on the edge of madness. I worry that he won’t survive the run, but of course I think he poured extra into opening night. Westman’s cartoonish reading, so deftly comical exploited the text and Moore’s many opportunities for comedy in this role, especially a scene where he’s clearly drunk. His voice sailed over the orchestra, which seems much more sympathetic, precisely because it’s rarely as angry or strident with Macdonald, as it is with poor passionate Louis Riel. Coulombe at times is like the conscience of the opera, perhaps a bit like Arkel (Pelléas et Mélisande) or Sarastro (Magic Flute) with his deep & soulful philosophy, to counter the cynical opportunism of Macdonald or the urgent activism of Riel.
There was a great deal of good work all around. Simone Osborne was especially effective in the most discussed scene of the opera – the one that provoked a mini-conference earlier this week on the protocols for using aboriginal songs in original Canadian compositions—earning the one spontaneous eruption of applause of the night. Otherwise the audience was quiet until the end of each act, erupting at the end in support especially for Hinton and his team.
I can’t mention everyone, but did love the work of Andrew Haji, he of that lovely voice, stepping into someone else’s role because of an indisposition (sorry they made an announcement, so I’m not sure which roles were his and which ones were last-minute). Michael Colvin was quite a piece of work in the most troubling role, namely Thomas Scott, the shit-disturber with the foul racist mouth who promises not to make trouble, and then when after repeatedly breaking his promise is executed. Colvin sounds wonderful, but was physically inside the role. You couldn’t take your eyes off of him, especially in his brutal death scene.
Justin Many Fingers gave us a glorious buffalo dance, which I heard him explaining on the radio –oh the serendipity of hearing him speak on CBC’s “Q” as I drove home tonight! –as a kind of balancing of another neglected part of the story, namely the slaughter of the buffalo. There are so many more –in a huge cast—but I’ll be back to see it again and will write some more about Riel.
It’s a complex stage picture at times, and perhaps I wished for something cleaner and simpler, but then again Hinton’s concepts are not simple. We are watching multiple groups interacting, and when you watch and listen it coheres. The opera that includes so many dated and troubling moments –now that I recall it—has been re-framed by Hinton and his team. While it’s far from perfect, I wonder if it can be part of that conversation in search of truth and reconciliation. It’s not a closed finished masterpiece, but ragged and rough in places, just like reality. Its ending is wonderfully open and ambiguous, much like that conversation.
I suspect that the COC planners expected Tosca to be the cash-cow with Riel as the exotic project for purists & history buffs. But don’t be surprised if it’s Riel that sells out every show. I saw a crowded theatre full of excited patrons, young and old from diverse backgrounds. I’d suggest you get tickets right away.