So here is the promised review of last night at the Four Seasons Centre. I have to phrase it that way because it was more than Somers’ opera Louis Riel though that of course was the major event. The evening kicked off with a performance in the RBA by the Git Hayetsk Dance Group. This is a west coast group and I’m not going to try and get into the complexities of nation, lineage and clan involved but it was a moving performance of traditional songs and dance with a brilliantly witty piece involving the trickster raven and a lot of stolen handbags. This was also the beginning of the public conversation about the use of the Nsga’a mourning song in Louis Riel. That conversation continued when the same group made a brief appearance on the main stage immediately before the opera performance. I understand that the intent is for the leader of the dancers to report back to the matriarch of the clan that owns the song on what happened and for the conversation to continue from there.
Harry Somers’ Louis Riel is iconic. It was the first Canadian opera to be performed by the COC (in 1967) and with its uncompromising musical modernism it stands out quite distinctly from the general corpus of Canadian operas. Even after 50 years it retains an “edgy” quality musically. It’s also iconic in that it uses the story of the Métis rebellions of 1870 and 1885 to explore the nature of Canadian identity. It’s also hugely problematic in that the libretto, quite naturally, sees that issue in 1960s terms; i.e French vs English with a side of Ottawa versus the West. There’s little room for Métis or First Nations sensibilities and the original production, recorded by the CBC in 1969, exacerbated that with a hyper-realistic treatment that made unfortunate use of a number of derogatory stereotypes of Aboriginal people. This was compounded by the use of a sacred Nisga’a mourning song with new words as a lullabye; the most famous part of the opera – the Kuyas – without acknowledgement or permission.
March was a curiously quiet month. April starts to look busier, at least once we get past Easter. Tonight, Against the Grain have their monthly pub night at The Amsterdam Bicycle Club. Snow is forecast so you should all stay away and then maybe I’ll be able to get in. On Saturday at 4pm there’s a free (or PWYC) recital in Ernest Baumer Studio featuring soprano Stephanie Nakagawa and pianist Peemanat Kittimontreechai. They will be performing arias from contemporary Canadian operas. On Thursday 13th Philippe Jaroussky and Les Violins du Roy will be appearing at Koerner Hall. It’s at 8pm and features mainly fairly obscure Handel material.
(left to right) Russell Braun as Louis Riel, Jani Lauzon as the Prison Guard, Allyson McHardy as Julie Riel and director Peter Hinton rehearsing Act III, scene v – Photo by Tanner Davies for the COC
Harry Somers’ Louis Riel was written to “celebrate” Canada’s 100th birthday and was performed at the COC in 1967 and 1968 and was given a studio TV broadcast treatment on the CBC in 1969. Eventually that broadcast made it onto DVD and I reviewed it about four years ago. The COC is now reviving it for Canada’s 150th in a new production by Peter Hinton, a director noted for his stage work with native artists and native themes. Yesterday I spent an hour at the COC watching a working rehearsal of one of the scenes and this morning I took another look at the DVD.
I had hoped to be able to offer some real insights into what one might expect to see when this production opens on April 20th but, to be perfectly honest, the deeper I dig the less certain I become about anything to do with it. I know that Hinton and the COC are taking enormous pains to recreate the work in a way that’s sensitive to 2017 and the different way that, we hope or aspire to, treat Canada’s original peoples (some of us do anyway). But what a challenge it seems to be. Let me try and explore some themes though you will find few conclusions.
Last night saw the Ensemble Studio’s big main stage performance. Rather than perform one of the COC’s current productions (hard to imagine how they could cast one from the current line up) we got scenes from three operas; two of them from the COC’s current season. They were performed with the orchestra on stage in front of the backdrop to the opening scene from the current Die Zauberflöte and in concert dress rather than costume (more or less, there were some nods to the roles in question) and with some blocking as far as limiting movement to the front of the stage permitted.
Last night I saw the alternate cast of the COC’s Magic Flute. Owen McCausland swaps First Armed Man for Tamino with Andrew Haji, Kirsten MacKinnon comes in as Pamina, Phillip Addis is Papageno and Matt Boehler is Sarastro. The changes don’t really affect things much at all. All the new faces are very good. MacKinnon is a very perky Pamina which works well with Addis who has maybe a bit more of the “cheeky chappy” than Hopkins. Fans of Owen McCausland and Andrew Haji will see exactly the differences in timbre and vocal technique one would expect but the interpretation is pretty much the same. Overall, I would say that someone not very familiar with these singers would scarcely notice any differences. What I did notice is how much better this production looks from Ring 3 than from the Orchestra. Getting something of a “plan view” makes the antics during the overture look less cluttered and frantic and the trials scene is much more effective. And the sound is better too.
Last night the COC began its run of Götterdämmerung, the last and longest opera in Wagner’s epic tetralogy at The Four Seasons Centre. It’s very different from Die Walküre and Siegfried. The visual elements that tied them together; tottering Valhalla, disintegrating world ash, gantries, dancers, heaps of corpses are mostly gone. In Tim Albery’s production the visuals are spare almost to abstraction. The Gibichung Hall is a CEO suite with computer monitors and red couches, both Brünnhilde’s rock and the Rhinemaidens’ hang out look improvised, almost like squatters’ camps. Costuming, apart from an occasional flashback, as in Waltraute’s scene, is severely modern business; grey suits, black dresses. Only Siegfried himself in tee shirt and leather jacket stands out from the corporate crowd. Dancing flames are replaced by red lights. Everything that can be understated is and the world ends not with an overflowing Rhine and collapsing Valhalla but a stately pas de quatre between Brünnhilde and the Rhinemaidens.