Louis Riel revival is electric

LOUIS RIEL by Harry Somers (Canadian Opera Company). At the Four Seasons Centre (145 Queen West). Runs to May 13..


LOUIS RIEL by Harry Somers (Canadian Opera Company). At the Four Seasons Centre (145 Queen West). Runs to May 13. $35-$350. 416-363-8231. coc.ca. See listing. Rating: NNNN

The Canadian Opera Company gives Harry Somerss Louis Riel, often called the greatest Canadian opera ever written, the best production one could ever hope for.

With 39 named characters and 17 scenes, Mavor Moores libretto aims at grandeur over drama, and the opera too often feels like a series of tableaux vivants that hardly convey mounting tension.

But despite this, Russell Braun gives an incandescent performance as Riel that is absolutely thrilling. He fully embodies the charismatic Metis leader in whom a longing for justice vies with an inclination to madness. The other 29 soloists and the two choruses impress with their total commitment to the work. Peter Hintons direction lends the opera a cohesiveness and sense of purpose it would otherwise lack.

The opera, premiered by the COC in 1967 for Canadas centennial and now revived for the sesquicentennial, is an intensely political work set in the years from 1869 to 1885 about Canadas westward expansion through the use of force and false promises.

Sir John A. Macdonald (a richly comic James Westman) uses the Catholic Bishop Tache (a deeply earnest Alain Coulombe) to carry messages of amnesty to anti-government rebels in Manitoba led by Riel, only to follow up with military action.

Johannes Debus leads the 67-member COC Orchestra in a fiery account of Somerss eclectic score that veers from atonalism and electronic sounds to European and First Nations folk song, liturgical music and, to satirize Ottawa, music hall references.

Highlights include Riels four virtuoso arias compellingly sung by Braun, the Kuyas aria appropriated from BCs Nisgaa people beautifully sung by Simone Osborne and a Catholic mass strongly led by Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure.

Since First Nations people were omitted from the original work, Hinton has employed two choruses. One, the Parliamentary Chorus, the operas original, sits above the action and comments. The new Land Assembly is a silent chorus composed of Metis and First Nations performers who interact with events on the ground.

The group is powerfully embodied by Metis singer/actor Jani Lauzon, whose questioning gaze haunts both Riel and us.

Thus, Hinton reframes the opera to depict Macdonald and Riel as fighting over land that belongs to neither. This lends a profound unifying irony to the work that enhances the story as a tragedy for Riel and the Land Assembly and a highly ambiguous triumph for everyone else.

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