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UBC ensemble brings Riel back to life

Louis Riel, February 4-7, 2010

The Vancouver Sun

by David Gordon Duke

It was in 1967, the centennial of Confederation, Montreal’s Expo and a landmark year in Canadian music. Toronto composer Harry Somers’ opera Louis Riel was given a spectacular premiere by the Canadian Opera Company in twin Toronto/Montreal launches. Forty-three years later, the UBC Opera Ensemble revives the work in a four-performance run at UBC’s Chan Centre, starting tonight.

Although it was by no means Canada’s first opera, Louis Riel – the tragic story of the leader of the Metis Red River Rebellion, ultimately hanged by the Canadian government for treason – earned an instant place in the somewhat shallow annals of Canadian music theatre.

At the time, it was bailed as the great Canadian opera; today, a rare chance to reassess the piece is very welcome.

In 1967, all the preconditions for success were in place. Harry Somers (1928-99) had been the golden boy of Canadian music for well over a decade. After creating a handful of spare but evocative works, and then a more protracted flirtation with Stravinsky-style neoclassicism, Somers was in his prime in the modernist ‘6os.

His librettist, Mavor Moore, was even more spectacularly placed in the national arts pantheon – a cultural bureaucrat, writer and all-around arts personality, Moore produced a theatrical scenario that digested the events surrounding the ill-fated Riel Rebellion and contextualized them with glimpses of political expediency and corruption.

Though some at the time found his script reminiscent of playwright John Coulter’s 1949 Riel, the first of his trilogy of plays on the subject, no one denied the theatricality of the resulting libretto, written, with some help from Jacques Languirand, in English, French and a dash of Cree.

The Riel saga is the stuff of epics, rich in strong personalities and dramatic situations. But while Louis Riel, the opera, has found a place in the history books, it hasn’t found much of a place on stage. Baritones who can sing the demanding title role don’t come around that often. (The part is doubled for the UBC performances.) There isn’t a lot of traditional love interest and there are dozens of subsidiary characters, making it an expensive proposition to mount.

Then, it must be said, there’s the musical idiom. Somers writes effectively for the voice, but by the mid ‘6os the idea of traditional or neo-traditional operatic writing wasn’t for him. His voices are supported by sparse webs of colours and textures, quite the thing at the time, but a style whose charms have faded.


All of this makes UBC Opera’s decision to stage the work all the more heroic. Dwight Bennett is UBC’s new professor of conducting who says: “I find it difficult to think of myself as any kind of professor; I’m really here to conduct the UBC student orchestra.” While he admits it’s quite a stretch to do Louis Riel in a university context, he is confident that both his orchestra and the Opera Ensemble singers are more than up to the task.

Bennett, who’s known the work since its premiere, is certainly well aware of its difficulties. Aside from the pared-down orchestral style and the rhythmic complexity of much of the music, there’s the conjunction of a difficult score with developing singers. It’s important to ensure that voices are protected, no matter what the score demands.

”We don’t want to destroy anyone’s vocal chords for the sake of one production,” Bennett says. And he is gratified that the UBC orchestra has risen to the challenge.

“In some ways, this piece is a giant counting exercise and it’s wonderful that no one gets lost, where some professional orchestras would crash and burn.

“Somers has a lot of theatricality and his setting of the text is brilliant in both English and French.”

Bennett admits he was rather surprised to discover how little today’s students know about Riel and his place in Canadian history. “But the work itself still makes a very powerful impact on them. Hopefully we will bring it to life, and in our own way. We are repeating the creative process here, finding our way through the notes Harry has left for us. We are not out to reproduce earlier recordings, any more than if we were presenting Aida. It has been a huge undertaking and very good in many ways for the development of the orchestra and likewise for the singers. When the dust settles, everyone will have better rhythmic skills, increased mental stamina and physical endurance – and a bit more Canadian history.”

Thu Feb 4, 2010