A Tale of Contradictions: Louis Riel at the COC

Louis Riel circa 1875

Louis Riel circa 1875 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I attended the May 5th 2017 performance of the Canadian Opera Company‘s (COC) production of Louis Riel.

The production stars Russell Braun as Louis Riel, Simone Osborne as Marguerite Riel, Allyson McHardy as Julie Riel, James Westman as Sir John A. MacDonald, Alain Coulombe as Bishop Taché, and Andrew Love as Dr. Shultz.  The production is directed by Peter Hinton, and conducted by the COC’s Music Director Johannes Debus.

The production uses a minimalist set, which I normally disapprove of.  However, in this production the set works for me.  It allows the political drama to unfold without much of the director making us see the work only from his view.  The singing was good, Miss Osborne’s role was so small in this opera that it was really a waste of her talent.  Mr. Braun was in excellent form, and provided a very balanced performance.

The music, while it had its moments (sometimes it sounded like a breeze travelling over the prairies) was weak.  There are no obvious tunes anywhere in the opera.  Louis Riel has two arias/soliloquies where Mr. Braun essentially sang a cappella – which were highlights, along with Miss Osborne’s solo number in the third act.

The opera does take liberties with Louis Riel’s life, leaving out the fact that he was elected to the House of Commons more than once.  The opera tries to take a neutral stance on Louis Riel’s life and the actions he took.  It leaves the audience to decide the ultimate question: was he mentally ill (and thus not accountable for his actions) or did he deserve  to be executed for the crimes he did commit.  The production, however, does strongly suggest that he intentionally allow Thomas Scott to be executed, and action which English Ontario used against him.

The opera, and this production, do raise a few question though.

The first is what I see is the unfair was the treatment of Sir John A. MacDonald.  The opera implies that Sir John A. was only out for blood.  What seems to be missed is the obvious fact that Louis Riel would be executed for treason when Canada was less than 20 years old, that the Fenian raid had also taken place during this period, and that the Government was under the legitimate threat that the United States could have potentially taken over the Northwest Territories (now much of Alberta and Saskatchewan) or even seeing Canada absorbed by its neighbour – something that can still be argued in some ways today with the cultural influences and economical ties between the two countries.

In that light, it is really unfair of the opera to take such a view of Sir John A. MacDonald in this case.  Louis Riel was yet another threat to the Dominion that could have destroyed the country Sir John A. was struggling to create, and the country that we have become thanks to him and the other Fathers of Confederation.

Of course, the opera demonstrates the contradictions between Protestant and Catholic, English Canada and French Canada, and the Government and the native population.  Was the Government unfair towards the Métis?  Yes.  But did this justify Riel’s armed rebellions (and we must remember he led two armed rebellions)?  That’s a good question.  But when we look at what was achieved after the first rebellion – the creation of Manitoba – did Riel have to lead another rebellion, especially – at least in the opera – he had found some sort of contentment in Montana and was married with children?  He could have contently stayed in Montana – was it megalomania as some biographers now claim, or just thoughts of grandeur  that made Louis Riel lead another rebellion?

The opera does raise a lot of questions, and leaves the audience to consider what would have occurred if events had drawn out differently.  But while I have always tended to argue that Louis Riel deserve to be charged with treason, the opera does make me wonder if the punishment (being hanged) was the right decision.  Nowadays, he would certainly have received medical attention instead, at least if we consider the person who is presented in this opera.  And the opera does make me think that perhaps the punishment did not fit the crime.

Louis Riel runs through May 13th 2017 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

About Edward Brain

I am a long time condo activist and have a background in Business Administration.
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