Louis Riel operas flaws redeemed, mostly, by star Russell Braun: review

Louis Riel operas flaws redeemed, mostly, by star Russell Braun: review

Russell Braun’s powerful and deeply moving portrayal of the troubled, tortured title character in Harry Somers’ Louis Riel is reason enough to head to the Four Seasons Centre to witness the Canadian Opera Company’s re-engineered revival of a flawed yet iconic work of Canadian music theatre. Braun’s performance tests all the superlatives, but there are other compelling reasons, too.The COC’s new production of the Somers-scored, Mavor Moore-penned opera about the 19th-century Métis leader who stood up to Ottawa as the young Canadian dominion expanded westward is the company’s most anticipated of the season. It bravely revisits a 50-year-old opera that viewed a highly contentious episode in Canadian history, with repercussions that still echo today, through a distorting lens of Eurocentric incomprehension.This is not to blame Somers and Moore. They were men of their times. The opera was commissioned for Canada’s Centennial. Indeed, choosing Riel as their subject and presenting him in a more or less sympathetic light was a brave thing to do. Still, they cast Riel’s story as an emblem of the struggle for dominance — religious, economic and thus political — between the colonizing French and English.Peter Hinton, the new production’s director, views the 1967 original through a contemporary lens. He reminds us that the national dream of Sir John A. Macdonald rode roughshod over the legitimate rights of indigenous peoples, that Riel’s story is much more than another chapter in the continuing history of English-French rivalry.Article Continued BelowMuch has already been written about Hinton’s laudable quest to inform his approach through deep consultation and collaboration with indigenous artists. Much is made of the fact that some now perform in the opera, that the representation of their culture and musical traditions is respected and former misappropriations corrected. The new production adds Michif, the Métis language, to the original’s mix of English, French and Cree. Jani Lauzon, an actor and singer of Métis ancestry, performs very effectively in the interpolated role of Folksinger, along with other roles in this multiply-cast opera. A key element in Hinton’s reworking is the introduction of a silent chorus of indigenous performers he has referred to as the “Land Assembly.” It serves as a constant visual reminder of a gaping absence in the original, yet the flaws of that original are still unavoidable.The cartoonish depiction of a cynical, booze-swilling Macdonald who, according to costume designer Gillian Gallow. wore the same garish suit at the time of the North-West Rebellion of 1885 that he’d sported during the Red River Rebellion 15 years before, is if anything amplified. The original’s longueurs still make it at times painfully inactive. There remains the sense that you’re being given a sit-up-and-pay-attention history lesson, albeit as we now understand, a lopsided one.

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