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BWW Review: The Canadian Opera Company's LOUIS RIEL - A Step in the Right Direction


Colonization is a controversial part of our heritage, and is central to the Canadian Opera Company's (COC) new production of Harry Somers' LOUIS RIEL. The production has sparked discourse on the use of Indigenous songs in opera, the portrayal of Indigenous men and women on stage and First Nations song protocol in general. In an effort to present a more contemporary perspective, Director Peter Hinton has collaborated with members of the Indigenous community, integrating a group of performers as a physical chorus, known as the Land Assembly. The result is a more inclusive and respectful revival of the opera, opening with a land acknowledgement by Cole Alvis, a theatre artist of Métis, Irish and English descent.

The plot focuses on Louis Riel's mission to protect and preserve the Métis peoples rights to their land and culture. While attempting to expand the Dominion of Canada into North-Western Territory, eastern troops (under the control of Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald) are met by a resistance movement, led by Riel. Riel rallies his people, forming a provisional government which gives him negotiating power in the terms for Manitoba's Confederation. In true opera fashion, the plot features allusions of madness, prophetic visions, exile and murder.

The idea of "one side against the other" is a central theme in the production. This is highlighted in Michael Gianfrancesco's minimalist set design, which features elevated levels, allowing for a chorus of spectators and participants at any given time. The costumes by Gillian Gallow use colour provocatively to the same effect, contrasting bright reds against neutrals. Gallow creates conflict through the use of both modern and historical costumes, a reminder of how relevant these issues still are today.

Russell Braun as Louis Riel (centre) in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company's new production of Louis Riel, 2017, photo: Michael Cooper

Russell Braun is a tour de force in his fervent portrayal of the title role. His vocal endurance is remarkable; his musicality, masterful. Opera singers often have a reputation for being excellent singers, but poor actors - Braun proves that this is not the case. His Louis Riel begins as impulsive and frenetic in Act I (at one point he throws himself onto the ground near a roaring fire) but evolves into a dynamic and charismatic leader. Riel's aria near the end of Act III was (for me) the highlight of the entire opera.

Simone Osborne stands out in her portrayal of Marguerite Riel. Though brief, her enchanting performance provides a much needed break in an opera dominated by male voices. Opening the third act, Osborne's voice carries beautifully, with perfect control through the long, legato lines required by the score. It's a shame that Somers didn't give her more to sing.

If you've never been to an opera, LOUIS RIEL may not be where you want to start. The combination of tonal and atonal music can take some patience to appreciate (Puccini's, Tosca opens next week and would be better suited for opera newbies). However, LOUIS RIEL is an important opportunity to reflect on our country's complicated history. Hinton's production is sensitive in its representation of indigeneity, but also serves as a reminder that we still have a long way to go.


You still have five chances to see LOUIS RIEL, running until May 13, 2017 at The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St. W, Toronto, ON. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit

(photo credit: Sophie I'anson)

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