Looking forward to Riel


(left to right) Russell Braun as Louis Riel, Jani Lauzon as the Prison Guard, Allyson McHardy as Julie Riel and director Peter Hinton rehearsing Act III, scene v – Photo by Tanner Davies for the COC

Harry Somers’ Louis Riel was written to “celebrate” Canada’s 100th birthday and was performed at the COC in 1967 and 1968 and was given a studio TV broadcast treatment on the CBC in 1969.  Eventually that broadcast made it onto DVD and I reviewed it about four years ago.  The COC is now reviving it for Canada’s 150th in a new production by Peter Hinton, a director noted for his stage work with native artists and native themes.  Yesterday I spent an hour at the COC watching a working rehearsal of one of the scenes and this morning I took another look at the DVD.

I had hoped to be able to offer some real insights into what one might expect to see when this production opens on April 20th but, to be perfectly honest, the deeper I dig the less certain I become about anything to do with it.  I know that Hinton and the COC are taking enormous pains to recreate the work in a way that’s sensitive to 2017 and the different way that, we hope or aspire to, treat Canada’s original peoples (some of us do anyway).  But what a challenge it seems to be.  Let me try and explore some themes though you will find few conclusions.

In 1967 Canada was still governed by a Westminster statute.  It would be another fifteen years before the country had a “made in Canada” constitution and a good chunk of that fifteen years, and a good deal of violence, from both non-state actors and the Canadian state, would be devoted to one of Louis Riel‘s key themes; the relationship between English and French speaking Canada.  In emphasising this aspect of the Métis story the piece rather de-emphasises the indigenous people vs. settler/colonialist issues.  Indeed the Métis and their allies are not presented in a particularly favourable light in the original production.  They are a scruffy, drunken, quarrelsome bunch.  To be fair, the Europeans are presented just as negatively though perhaps less scruffily.  Only the Riel family members get a more sympathetic treatment though most of them seem to be barking mad.  Sometimes one gets the impression that Riel is being depicted as the statesman Macdonald ought to have been (minus the religious bit).

All of that seems very different from the perspective of 2017.  The French/English issue is on the backburner and First Nations concerns have moved to the foreground though hardly in an unproblematic way.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been criticised for drawing a line under the Residential Schools issue rather than seeing it as an aspect of an ongoing system of colonial oppression while the recent remarks by senator Beyak suggest that sections of the Canadian right haven’t even caught up with an apology.   The refusal of the Harper government to even look into the issue of the Highway of Tears just reinforces that.  And curiously, in a link back to Louis Riel, it’s worth noting that the promise of an utterly insincere “enquiry” into Métis grievances was another of Macdonald’s tactics.

Everything I have seen and heard suggests that Peter Hinton and his team at the COC are making heroic efforts to deal with these issues.  There have been some changes to the piece itself.  There are additional characters vocally or silently representing native viewpoints.  Native people have been integrated into the production process.  Changes have been made to the use of language including the introduction of the Métis language Michif as well as acknowledging some of the issues of cultural appropriation involved with the famous Kulyas aria.  Even some of the opera singing roles are taken by First Nations or Métis singers.  I also sense from what I saw yesterday a different aesthetic from 1967, which I think I would describe as hyperrealistic, which also means, to an extent, in your face.  Hinton and his team seem to have created a more austere, more intellectual aesthetic.  Of course I may be reading too much into one scene.  It’s also notable that the cast includes some of the country’s more subtle artists (it’s an all Canadian cast).  Russell Braun is in the title role and elsewhere there are the likes of Alysson McHardy and Alain Coulombe.

So the big question in my mind is that, while one can acknowledge all kinds of things, be inclusive in the production process and say all the right words in publicity material and director’s notes, can one transcend the cultural limitations on stage?  The challenge, as Hinton states, “is taking an artifact from the 1960s and reviving it for today within a contemporary and inclusive practice.  It is a delicate balance of renewing the original spirit of the piece with contemporary perspectives in order to revise the opera’s colonial biases and bring forward its inherent strength and power.”  The longer I have spent revisiting the piece and its history the more challenging that seems.  I hope the team can pull this off but it’s not going to be easy!

Besides the main stage production at the COC there are a series of events related to Louis Riel coming up over the next few weeks.  They are described in this COC Press Release.

Louis Riel runs at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts from April 20th to May 13th.  Full details and ticket information is here.

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