Riel redux

I went back to see the COC’s Louis Riel again on Friday evening.  Unlike opening night I wasn’t all keyed up to see whether Peter Hinton’s production “worked”.  I knew it did.  I think, too, perhaps the cast were less nervy and had settled into the show.  In any event it allowed me to see the show in some different ways though I suspect that to fully unpack it would take a couple more viewings.  It’s more than a crying shame that there will be no video recording, unlike 1969.  In fact it’s a damning indictment of successive Canadian governments and the CBC.

What follows isn’t intended as an exhaustive analysis or review.  Rather it’s a few thoughts that have been percolating.


Riel as “bio-pic” vs. Riel as “history”.  On opening night my framework for viewing was clearly centred around how the various groups (British, Métis, Canadiens, Cree etc [1]) would be presented.  I was seeing the story essentially as a “clash of forces” rather than a story about individual people.  It’s clearly not the only way.  The opera is also very much the story of Louis Riel the man.  It’s a complex story of a man driven by different kinds of obsession.  There are elements of tragedy.  The execution of Scott sets in train events every bit as momentous as Oedipus killing his father yet there are choices made.  One of the enigmas of the opera is how the Riel of 1885 does or does not relate to the Riel of 1870.  There are only a couple of lines in the whole piece that fill in those 15 years.  Perhaps the most telling is Wolsey’s “Major, tell the troops the town is theirs”.  If one didn’t know, and I suspect most people seeing the piece don’t, that Wolsey was unleashing a three year military reign of terror  (murders, rapes, beatings, homestead burnings) by the Ontario militia on the Red River settlements, that line could easily pass without notice.  Then there is the brief mention of Riel’s time in a mental hospital and his wife’s gnomic allusion to his “illness”.  What seems to be a constant is a kind of vision of how the Métis (and other indigenous groups) could be incorporated, as French speaking Catholics, in a Canada that was explicitly part of the British Empire.  I think it takes an incredible mental agility (or sheer delusion) to see how that could ever be.  See below.

Riel’s vision vs Macdonald’s vision.  Of all the British characters in the drama John A. Macdonald is much the most interesting.  The rest are sketchily drawn mid Victorian Britons.  They dislike the Americans.  They consider the Métis to be “half breeds” and other indigenous people to be “savages”.  They are destined to be ruled by “civilized” people even if “we have to hang the ruddy lot”.  The only issue is whether it’s the American or British brand of civilisation.  To them, too, the Canadiens are an anomaly that must be tolerated but contained.  Time and demographics will reduce them to irrelevance.  Macdonald is much more complex.  He also believes in a British Canada “a mari jusque ad mare” but he knows it isn’t inevitable and is flexible (remarkably so for a Victorian Brit) about how to achieve it.  But he’s constrained.  He needs Ontario and, ideally, he would rather have Quebec on side.  Riel’s Manitoba[2] is an optional extra but potentially a valuable one so long as it doesn’t block British expansion (I suspect that the railway became central to Macdonald’s vision before 1869 but how early I’m not sure).  So, I think he’s negotiating in good faith right up to the execution of Scott.  At that point Riel has to be abandoned to the Orange Lodge and Wolsey.  They are essential.  The Métis are not.  It’s perhaps an interesting alt-history experiment to think about what might have happened if Riel had simply deported Scott.

Macdonald as portrayed in the opera.  I have heard that a lot of people think either that (a) the opera maligns Macdonald by portraying him as something of a buffoon or (b) that making Macdonald a buffoon makes the opera less dramatically effective.  I honestly don’t care about (a).  It’s an opera so its under no obligation to be fair or historically accurate[3].  Also, Macdonald has been so whitewashed by the received versions of Canadian history that some scepticism is welcome.  As to (b), I’m not sure.  I think the John A. Macdonald of the libretto, portrayed rather brilliantly by James Westman, is a lot more complex than he appears at first blush.  Yes, he’s a clown but I think one can see his clowning as a front for the fact that what he’s saying (and even more thinking) is running in grooves his Mid Victorian British colleagues just can’t fathom.  For a buffoon he is remarkably effective (compare and contrast with real buffoons in politics).


The score.  OK so it’s not an easy listen but I don’t think it’s any harder than say Elektra[4].  It’s also very interesting.  Different vocal styles are used, not just for different characters, but for different dramatic purposes.  Speech and Sprechstimme tend to represent the characters’ real intentions and meanings.  The more florid the music gets the more we are in a world of aspiration and artifice.  In some ways it’s the direct opposite of opera seria.  When it really matters that we hear the text the scoring is sparse to non-existent.  The medium never masks the message.  The use of electronics is unusual too.  I think it’s the case that the (discordant) electronic elements only come in at times of high conflict; when armies are on the march for example.  There’s much more use of brass and low strings, which sit tonally around the range of the male characters, than higher pitched instruments.  Worth thinking about in an opera where only four of the umpty ump characters are female (and one of those ambiguously so).

Metatheatre.  While avoiding the crasser devices of “theatre in a theatre” this production has lots of “meta” elements.  For most of the opera, the (conventional) chorus sits in a sort of giant jury box, in modern dress, “judging” the actors on stage.  Silent characters show up where one might not expect them.  When Riel’s mother visits him in his cell both his sister and his wife are on stage though playing no part in the action.  In the trial scene all sorts of people from 1870 are in the “jury box”; Scott, Wolsey, the Orange dude from Ontario etc.  There’s probably way more that I missed.  I know i saw things on Friday that completely escaped me on opening night.


This really is the sort of piece that if one chooses to fully engage with it can give one sleepless nights.  Would that one could say that about every production.

There’s a last chance to see Louis Riel at the Four Seasons Centre next Saturday.  After that there are just two performances at the NAC in Ottawa on June 15th and 17th.

Photo credits: Sophie I’anson and Michael Cooper


  1. It seems best to avoid the use of “Canadians” or a similar term for the European derived inhabitants of the Dominion of Canada in 1870 or 1885 so I have chosen to use “British” for English speakers who certainly would have seen themselves as such (unless they were Irish or American) and “Canadien” for the francophones of Quebec who, in 1870 and long after, constituted a group neuther British nor French.
  2. It’s easy to understate the extent of the problem Macdonald faced in retaining British control of the North West.  Prior to the railway there was no way of reaching the Red River settlement overland without going through the United States.  The strategic implications of that are obvious.
  3. I wonder how many people write to the management of Stratford to complain that Shakespeare was unfair to Macbeth?  Actually there are many, many places in the Louis Riel where history and characters are compressed, conflated or elided for dramatic effect.  That’s what happens when one turns fifteen years of history into a couple of hours of opera.  See also Nixon in China, Maria Stuarda etc, etc.
  4. I’m saying that it’s no harder to listen to.  I make no comment on the relative difficulty of performing the two works.  I’ll leave that to singers.

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