It’s hard to remember a production more eagerly anticipated than the Canadian Opera Company’s revival of Harry Somers’s and Mavor Moore’s Louis Riel, which opened Thursday at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre. Here was the iconic Canadian opera, conceived on a grand scale, commissioned for Canada’s centennial year and revived for its sesquicentennial. A co-production of the COC and the National Arts Centre. A Canadian opera presented in two major houses. An all-star Canadian cast. A renowned Canadian director.And how did it turn out?
The problem with the COC’s and director Peter Hinton’s Louis Riel is that a surprisingly small story, in the end, was played very large. I’ve never seen the gargantuan Four Seasons stage seem so immense and lonely, with vast open spaces yawning between characters who should have been in intimate connection. Sometimes characters in conversation are 20 or 30 feet from one another. Perhaps that was Hinton’s idea, to portray the power of our landscape on stage, but the unoccupied spaces tended to drain the drama from the story, make everything into tableaux, turn intimacy into historical set-piece. Hinton used space this way because he had, in effect, two choruses on stage for virtually the whole opera – one representing white Canada, often arrayed in a jury box that stretched across the entire stage; the other a collection of Indigenous people, mute, the Land Assembly, as he calls it, one of his innovations to try to restore the Indigenous reality left out of the original Riel production. I wondered before Thursday whether the Land Assembly would seem irrelevant, or powerful, and in the end it was neither, actually. It was a dramatic technique that sometimes added to the sense of the story and sometimes provided mere visual interest, but tended to dissipate the drama on stage rather than heighten it. Often, the onstage chorus interceded between us and the main characters, diminishing our response to the drama those characters represented.The composer was Harry Somers:
But the basic problem that all cast members had, as well as the COC Orchestra under Johannes Debus, is that Somers’s score for Riel has not aged well in the 50 years since its composition. Somers wrote Riel in something of a quasi-dissonant, highly angular, international style in the mid-sixties, sort of the musical equivalent of all those anonymous steel and glass office towers that clog North American cities today. The problem with the style is that it is consummately anti-lyrical, refusing the human voice its natural concourse and ambit, and so fails to reflect a human story with essential warmth and needed passion.I suspect there might be another layer of problems, both with the original and with the revival and it is one endemic to the arts in Canada. There is this deeply rooted belief that Canada always has to have a "national policy" for everything: crises, economics, and, sadly, the arts. There is always a kind of deadening collectivity like a blanket of mediocrity over everything. The essential truth about the arts is that there, as in everything, creativity always comes from individuals. Perhaps the greatest Canadian musicians were Glenn Gould and Leonard Cohen, both of them very unusual individuals and for that reason, often treated with suspicion by their fellow Canadians. Success in the arts in Canada is dependent on the good regard of your colleagues who run those sources of publicity, support and promotion: the Canada Council, the Canadian Opera Company, the National Arts Centre. All of them following some sort of national policy. And just as the individuals were lost on the stage of the Louis Riél opera, so the creative individuals in Canada tend to fall through the cracks of the "national arts policy". Good God, why would anyone think that the arts come from government bodies and policies! But that seems to be the view in Canada.
It doesn't work that way. My evidence is that there are no Canadian composers who are internationally known. The only two who come close are Claude Vivier and R. Murray Shafer and unless you are Canadian, I suspect you have never heard of either of them.
As an envoi, here is some music by Claude Vivier, Lonely Child, for soprano and orchestra: