The god-damn son of a bitch is dead

“The god-damn son of a bitch is dead”.  So says one of John A. Macdonald’s henchmen on checking his watch to see that the scheduled time of Louis Riel’s execution has passed; at least in Harry Somers’ 1969 operatic version of the story.  Louis Riel, on the face of it is a historic narrative about the leader of the 1869 and 1885 Métis opposition to the expansion of the Dominion of Canada.  But it’s deeper than that.   It’s a complex work dealing with fundamental questions of identity and belonging and of the relation between people and state.  Written during a weird combination of the orgy of cultural nationalism that greeted the centenary of Confederation and Canada’s most turbulent political violence it transcends the Canadianness of its story and clear parallels could be found in many countries, including Canada, today.  This is really about “culture wars” in all their complexity and horror.

1.barrierIt’s also a complex work musically and linguistically.  The libretto mixes French and English with bits of Cree and Latin for good measure.  A full libretto is included with the DVD but no subtitles so this could be a bit of a trial for those lacking one of the official languages.  Of course, 1969 was pre surtitle, even at the COC, so that’s how the original audience saw/heard it.  The music is a rich mix of atonal and electronic elements with more lyrical writing and some folk songs dropped in.  Different musical styles ranging from speech to full on lyricism are used to differentiate Easterners from Westerners and to convey intent and deceit.  It’s an interesting and engaging score.

2.ottawaIt’s not clear from the documentation exactly how, or by who, this was filmed but it looks like it was shot on stage but not during a live performance.  The designs are definitely theatrical (and, though essentially naturalistic, far less conservative than most of what would be seen at COC during the Mansouri era) but the whole thing has a “made for television” look.  Certainly it’s a 4:3 picture though it is actually pretty decent quality, as is the Dolby stereo sound.  All in all, the Canadian Music Centre has done an excellent job in turning a 45 year old TV broadcast into a perfectly acceptable DVD.  It’s certainly technically vastly superior to other DVDs of CBC recordings of COC productions.

3.mcd_bishopThere are some very engaging performances especially from Bernard Turgeon in the title role.  He does a great job of showing Riel’s transition from reluctant rebel to full on religious nutcase.  Donald Rutherford is also very good as the terminally devious Macdonald and there’s good work too from Joseph Rouleau as the conflicted Bishop Tasché.  Victor Feldbrill conducts and is a first rate advocate for the score.

4.crossThe disk also contains interviews with Harry Somers and librettist Mayor Moore as well as a synopsis by Moore. The booklet, besides the libretto, contains decent essay material on the music and the drama.

5.endIt’s really good to see one of Canada’s relatively few grand operas represented in this way.  This is a very decent piece of music theatre with a universality that deserves to be seen way beyond Canada.

18 thoughts on “The god-damn son of a bitch is dead

  1. Very important DVD! perhaps the greatest Canadian opera of all. NB for what it’s worth, the original line: “The god-damn [or ‘god-damned’] son of a bitch is dead”

    • Made the edit! Thanks! I could well see this as the greatest of Canadian operas. I don’t claim to have comprehensive knowledge of the field but Louis Riel is very fine and at least as worthy of note as many much more famous operas from countries that see more publicity. Certainly it beats Anna Nicole into a cocked hat.

      • In some ways it’s very much of its time. Notice that the libretto includes some English, some French and some Cree, as though it were seeking to embody our official cultures. Had it been written 20 years later, perhaps Somers would have had to work Italian, Chinese and other parts of our mosaic into the opera. The other opera the COC premiered that year –The Luck of Ginger Coffey– has vanished without a trace, as far as i can tell.

        Here’s hoping that the COC gives it a new production in 2017: the 50th anniversary of the opera’s premiere, the 150th anniversary of the country’s premiere (aka confederation).

      • The broadcast, too, is very much of its time. It reflects a CBC that is long gone. Not only is the CBC broadcasting a cotremporary opera, it is being presented in the context of current political events in a way that is less than flattering to the prime minister of the day. It’s a far cry from today’s cringing populism.

  2. Gotta say, my knowledge of the Riel affair all comes from Seth’s graphic novel, Riel, and Will Ferguson’s Canadian History For Dummies. But I like what I take to be Seth’s take on the whole thing: the ardent theocracy, even if very grassroots, gets beaten by the more lib-dem, secular system; by force, alas, but it’s actually, tragically, in historical long-term, a good thing, more or less.

    Don’t know if it’s accurate, and if there was any other way to overcome or co-opt or admit to the political system Riel and his followers.

    • Well it’s always more complicated….

      A big part of the issue was that it suited John A. to exploit Anglo Protestant bigotry which was no more secular than Riel. That’s why the bars were still closed on Sunday when I first moved here!

      • And until fairly recently United Church owned universities and was intricately connected with the Cons — cf. the Harry Crowe affair.

        But still. There was a difference between the two worldviews, I think. Though some would probably argue that the Riel do was the story of an expansionist imperial state ploughing through to reach the West Coast, and less a dispute over worldviews.

  3. Thank you for posting this wonderful article!! You can purchase a copy on I did. It’s a wonderful addition to my collection.

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