Remembering Riel: More Than Four Decades after Its Premiere, Carl Morey Reviews Canada's Neglected Grand Opera

Article excerpt

In a 1968 review for The Canadian Forum of Harry Somers' Louis Riel, I wrote that the opera at its revival "proved as compelling as at its premiere" and that it is "a moving and highly original music drama." More than 40 years on, I have no reason to change my mind.

The confirmation of my opinion conies in the recently issued DVD of the opera on Centrediscs/Centredisques, the label of the Canadian Music Centre (CMCDVD 16711). It reproduces a CBC telecast from 1969, but let me say at once that there is nothing unpolished or antiquated about the production or the DVD. The visual and audio components are excellent. Indeed, it may come as a surprise after a diet of televised live stage performances with stilted camera positions and endless head-shots to see a 1960s production designed for studio television with carefully plotted camera angles and changing sight lines.

Louis Riel was commissioned by Floyd Chalmers for the Canadian centennial celebrations in 1967. Somers wrote the music to a libretto by Mayor Moore and extensive sections in French devised by Jacques Languirand. The Canadian Opera Company presented it in Toronto in 1967, 1968 and 1975, in Montreal at Expo 67, and in Ottawa and Washington DC in 1975.Then Louis Riel vanished for 30 years. Recently, it was given by the opera departments of McGill University (2005) and the University of British Columbia (2010), but there has not been a professional production since 1975.

The opera deals with Louis Riel and his desire to establish Manitoba as a home for the Metis against the opposition in Ottawa of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. The linguistic, cultural and religious struggles that faced Riel continue to bedevil Canada today and Moore did not hesitate to make high drama from those conflicts. It is easy enough to understand why the work has not received any recognition outside Canada. Despite the huffing of our politicians, most of the world takes little notice of us. The historical Louis Riel is unknown beyond our borders, and an opera that makes him the dominant figure in a political and social drama that is central to Canada is understandably of little interest abroad.

Not so easy to justify is the indifference of Canadian opera companies. …