A UNIQUE CANADIAN OPERA will form a major part of the Canadian Opera Company's Centennial season. Rare enough are operas written and composed by Canadians on a Canadian theme — in this case the tragic life and death of Louis Riel; but this one is performed in intermingled French and English. Another innovation is an onstage screen on which are projected contemporary newspaper headlines, which serve to move the action forward vividly.
Louis Riel was commissioned by the Floyd S. Chalmers Foundation, with the financial assistance of the Centennial Commission and the Canada Council. The music was composed by Harry Somers, to a libretto by Mavor Moore in collaboration with Jacques Languirand. The libretto, based on the historical record, is freely shaped for dramatic purposes. It is written in verse but for reasons of space the text is printed here in continuous lines. The opera will first be performed at O'Keefe Centre, Toronto, on September 23, and again on September 28 and October 1 1. Additional performances will be in Montreal’s Place des Arts on October 19 and 21 as part of Expo 67.
The excerpt published below is of the closing scenes of the opera. After the rebellion was crushed at Batoche, Riel gave himself up. and as the scene opens his trial is starting in Regina, July 28, 1885.
ON SCREEN: The Queen v.v. Riel
(We are in the courtroom in Regina— a small room crowded with the judge’s table, the witness-box, the jury box, and visitors’ boxes. The lights come up. The judge and one assistant sit at the judge’s table. The jury numbers six men: two merchants and four farmers. For the Crown, B. B. Osler and T. C. Casgrain, the latter from Quebec. For the defense, F. X. Lemieux and Charles Fitzpatrick. There are several ladies in the visitors’ gallery, many of them wives of the distinguished participants and thus dressed in the height of fashion. Riel is in the witness-box.)
JUDGE: Louis Riel, you are charged with high treason. The clerk will put the question. please.
LEMIEUX: Your Honor, before he puts
the question, the defense would like to raise its own: the jurisdiction of this court. I'his is a capital case: and the law' provides that treason shall be tried not by a magistrate but a judge . . . JUDGE: Overruled.
LEMIEUX: ... in a provincial capital . . . JUDGE: Overruled.
LEMIEUX: . . . before a jury of 12. not six. JUDGE: Overruled. This court will try this case. Proceed.
CLERK: Louis Riel, are you guilty or not guilty?
RUL: I have the honor to answer the
court. I am not guilty.
CHORUS: NOT GUILTY! HE PLEADS NOT
GUILTY! NOT GUILTY!
JUDGE: The Crown may proceed.
(As each witness enters the box he is identified on the screen and a strong ( hord in the music signals his entry.)
ON SCREEN: Major-General Middleton,
continued O. C. Militia.
MIDDLETON: Riel told me he had a mission to destroy the British Empire. He thought that others would come to his aid: Americans, Irish. Germans, Poles — either mad or a bloody fool! CHORUS: EITHER MAD OR A BLOODY FOOL! ON SCREEN: Captain H. Young, North West Mounted Police. YOUNG: Riel was the leader, all the way. He carried no arms: he carried a cross, he knew the half-breeds worshipped him. He figured it out. Mister Riel is either brilliant or insane.
CHORUS: EITHER BRILLIANT OR INSANE! ON SCREEN: Poundmaker, chief of the Crees.
POUNDMAKER: Louis Riel sent me this message: "Rise. And if you possibly can, destroy Lort Battleford. We fight in the name of God. of Jesus Christ, the Holy Virgin and Saint Joseph." CHORUS: THE HOLY VIRGIN AND SAINT JOSEPH!
RIEL: Your Honor, may 1 say a word? JUDGE: Not now. Your counsel, who have come at great expense from Montreal, will put your questions. Please proceed. ON SCREEN: dairies Nolin, Metis. NOLIN: Il est reste chez moi trois mois . . . JUDGE: The jury does not understand. Translate.
LEMIEUX: He stayed three months with me.
NOLIN: Il disait qu'il avait reçu mission de Dieu . . .
LEMIEUX: He said he had a mission from God.
NOLIN: De renverser la Reine et le
Pape . . .
LEMIEUX: TO overthrow' the Queen and the Pope . . .
NOLIN: Et devenir le Pape du Nouveau Monde . . .
LEMIEUX: And be the Pope of the New World.
NOLIN: Il disait que Dieu lui parlait dans ses boyaux ...
LEMIEUX: He said God told him through his bowels . . .
NOLIN: Et puis, il a dit qu’il avait le foie inspiré.
LEMIEUX: . . . and claimed his liver was inspired.
CHORUS: HE CLAIMED HIS LIVER WAS INSPIRED!
RIEL: Your Honor, before this witness leaves . . .
JUDGE: YOU must sit down.
RIEL: I want to ask ...
JUDGE: Your turn will come, hut at the
end. We'll hear the witnesses for defense.
ON SCREEN: Dr. François Roy, Beaaport
ROY: Ten years ago, the prisoner was a patient in my hospital for about a year and a half.
LEMIEUX: Name the disease he suffered from.
LEMIEUX: What are the symptoms, Dr.
ROY: The most important is that subjects are quite sane in other ways. LEMIEUX: But on the mania? ROY: Uncontrolled. Touch on that spot, they go wild. They are kings or queens, or prophets, yes!
LEMIEUX: And in that state would he be master of his acts, know right from wrong?
ROY: NO. he would not. OSLER: Are all religious leaders, then, megalomaniacs? Mahomet? Buddha? Brigham Young?
ROY: Who knows? I would have to examine each one first. RILL: Your Honor, would you permit me only . . .
JUDGE: Will you sit down? Your counsel here . ..
RIEL: Your Honor, the Crown, with their great talent, tries to show I am guilty; now my counsel, sent (1 know) by friends, are trying to show I am insane! LEMIEUX: We wish to make it clear, Your Honor, the prisoner must not interfere in his own defense.
LOUIS RIEL continued
“I don’t care much for life if I can’t live like a man”
RIEL: It is my life!
JUDGE: Stop that! The prisoner will sit down. Proceed with the defense.
ON SCREEN: rather Alexis Andre. ANDRÉ: I have lived in Saskatchewan for 20 years. 1 know my people.
LEMIEUX: Was Louis Riel a sensible man?
ANDRE: In what way?
LEMIEUX: Family, business, say?
ANDRÉ: Those subjects, yes.
LEMIEUX: Religion, then?
ANDRÉ: Ah no; religion and politics made
Louis Riel a different man.
LEMIEUX: HOW so?
ANDRE: There were two men in him: one wise and good, the other mad. LEMIEUX: Riel was irresponsible? ANDRÉ: He wanted to change the liturgy, the mass, the holy symbols, even. He thought himself the monarch David, reincarnated in this world. CHORUS: HE THINKS HE'S DAVID! DAVID! DAVID!
LEMIEUX: Was he a maniac, would you say?
ANDRÉ: The priests made up their minds he was — or else too big a criminal. RIEL: 1 cannot let these things be said! JUDGE: Mister Riel, will you sit down? LEMIEUX: Either we plead, or leave the case.
JUDGE: YOU wish to plead the case yourself?
RIEL: I mean no harm to their dignity, but 1 cannot abandon my dignity! Either I’m guilty of high treason, or go like an animal to live in asylum. Well, I don’t care much for life if I can't live like a man. a moral being with heart and mind! JUDGE: NOW stop that! Anything else to say?
RIEL: I cannot all ... I cannot all. There is too much to say . . . too much. (He sits, broken.)
JUDGE: Court is adjourned till tomorrow morning.
ON SCREEN: Toronto Mai!
RIEL VERDICT TODAY!
(A corner of Riel’s small cell. He is on his knees praying aloud in Latin. A guard brings in his mother Julie.) JULIE: Ah! Louis .. . RIEL: Mère!
JULIE: Durant toutes ces années, Dieu a rempli la coupe de nos vies de peine et d'amertume — telle fut Sa volonté. Mais voici qu’aujourd’hui, la coupe déborde! Ah! si je dois vider d’un trait jusqu’à la lie cette coupe amère, Dieu m’en donne le courage! Je pleure, mais je veux garder la tête haute: ne baisse jamais les yeux, garde-les tournés vers le Ciel . . . notre consolation. RIEL: Dieu m’a abandonné. JULIE: Dieu jamais ne t’abondonnera. Mais reviens vers l’Eglise, comme l’enfant vers le sein de sa mère, et demande le pardon de tes péchés . .. RIEL: Le petit est né? JULIE: Pas encore.
RIEL: Et Marguerite, comment va-t-elle?
(Marguerite is Riel’s wife.)
JULIE: Elle attend ton retour.
RIEL: Et le petit Jean?
JULIE: Il ne vit que pour revoir son
RIEL. Vous direz à Sara que j’ai besoin de souliers, et d'un chapeau . . . GUARD: I'm sorry, madam, it's time to go. RIEL: Puisses-tu être bénie. Maman! Jusqu'à la fin de ta vie et pour l’éternité, ta foi, ta force, ton amour . . . (He breaks down.)
JULIE: Cher enfant, ils ne peuvent rien contre toi: Tu es dans les bras de Dieu. (They embrace. Julie leaves, demonstrating her strength for him for the last tinte. Riel sinks to his knees, but cannot pray.)
ON SCREEN: Le Droit
RIEL JUGE EAR UN JURY ANGLAIS! (We are back in the courtroom. Lemieux is finishing his address to the jury.) LEMIEUX: Either this man is a lunatic, as we have tried to prove, or else he's responsible for what he did. I know you will do justice by him! (A stir in the court as he sits.)
JUDGE: NOW, Mister Riel; at last your turn.
(An even greater stir. Riel is hesitant at first.)
RIEL: O God, and Jesus Christ, bless me, and bless this honorable court. The day of my birth. I was helpless, and my mother took good care of me. The NorthWest is my mother country, my mother country will not kill me: I have my
faults, but I am true, and mothers love you faults and all. I believe I have a mission. When I came, the Indian starve. The Métis have no rights, no laws; and now they live like men! We all see into the future, more or less: and I say humbly. through God's grace I am the prophet of this New World! What are these mad ideas of mine? Only that human beings have rights, and it is right to fight for them. God is the universal father and like a good father gives his sons a portion of his land to live on. We are not birds: we walk the ground! We do not fly when giants come. As for religion, my beliefs, am 1 insane to quit a church which has divided man from man? Though it may take 200 years, when I am dead my children’s child can shake hands with the Protestants—French and English side by side. On behalf of my mother, wife and son. I thank the counsel for the Crown for showing I am not insane. If you agree with the defense that I'm not responsible for my acts, you must acquit me, since I fought an irresponsible government! If you agree with the Crown I'm sane, acquit me all the same: I acted sensibly, in self-defense, against a government gone mad! For 15 years 1 have no money: no food to feed my family: I serve my country without pay. If you will do me justice now, you will reward me. and help them. I leave the verdict in God's hands. (A stir as he sits.)
JUDGE:: Will the Crown address the jury now?
OSLER: I think. Your Honor, there is no need: the prisoner has made our case.
( A great flurry in court as the lights go down.)
ON SCREEN: Ottawa Journal RIEL TO HANG TODAY!
(A street on Parliament Hill, Ottawa. Monday, November 16, 1885; early morning. This area is on one side of the stage only. On the other side is a large open area filled only by a shadowy gallows on a platform. Sir John A. Macdonald is on his way to the parliament buildings, top hat. fur-collared overcoat, cane and all. Pursuing and finally stopping him are A rchbishop Taché and I'. X. Lemieux, Riel's lawyer.) TACHÉ: Sir John! Sir John!
MACDONALD: Good morning. Your
Grace: a lovely day! TACHÉ: I wish it were.
MACDONALD: (Tipping his hat) Mister Lemieux . . .
TACHÉ: Forgive intruding on the street . . . MACDONALD: I’m on my way to parliament . . .
TACHÉ: But time is of the essence now: today Riel is due to hang.
MACDONALD: Oh yes, of course: now I recall.
LEMIEUX: We've only moments left. Sir John: If you would telegraph at once . . . MACDONALD: Now look here, Lemieux, wc have been over this a dozen times! TACHÉ: Is one more time not allowed for life and death?
LEMIEUX: The man was wronged!
(In the background, but not yet in the area of the gallows, HT see Riel, and Father André: Riel is kneeling while André administers extreme unction. The Riel scene goes on as a counterpoint to the Macdonald scene without interrupting it.)
MACDONALD: Louis Riel was justly tried. LEMIEUX: In spirit or letter of the law? MACDONALD: He had the boon of your advice!
LEMIEUX: The jury was six English — and not one Catholic among them! MACDONALD: IS British justice not
LEMIEUX: Does British justice hang the mad?
MACDONALD: The Royal Commission pronounced him sane.
LEMIEUX: The Royal Commission, as usual, was two for the English, one for the French!
LOUIS RIEL continued
(in the other set, André has finished the extreme unction.)
RILL: Je meurs catholique, de la vraie foi . . .
MACDONALD: I cannot understand you. Taché, pleading for an anti-Catholic! TACHÉ: He has recanted, joined the
“I cannot let one foolish man stand in the way of a nation”
MACDONALD: SO he wants to be a martyr!
Good! I’m told he said he had a vision where on the third day he arose! (Lemieux consults his watch: Macdonald hows elaborately, as if to leave. At precisely the same time, in the other set, André has finished and raises Riel, and a guard enters.)
RILL: YOU want me. shcrriff? I am ready. (A little procession forms: Riel, André, the sheriff and two policemen. Slowly, under the following dialogue, it makes its way to the scaffold. As a counterpoint to the dialogue, André intones the office of the dying.)
LEMIEUX : There’s very little time: reprieve him . . .
TACHÉ: On human grounds, if nothing else! His child was born dead yesterday. His wife is dying, his son is ill . . . MACDONALD: YOU think l want to hang this man. the worthiest adversary I’ve had? He played for high stakes, and he lost!
TACHÉ: The game is just begun. Quebec will . ..
MACDONALD: He shall hang, though every dog in all Quebec bark in his favor. (Macdonald stamps away — simultaneously with the action described below — but his movement is arrested by the arrival of Dr. Shultz coming from the opposite direction. Shultz has been a bitter opponent of Riel’s front the earliest days of the rebellion. Macdonald shows displeasure at meeting him but allows Schultz to whisper to him. Meanwhile, Taché and Lemieux consult urgently, in the Riel set, Riel and party are now at the scaffold. During the following dialogue, the hangman places the noose about Riel’s neck. A large crowd is now visible around the scaffold.) FATHER ANDRÉ: Louis, fais-tu de bon gré le sacrifice de ta vie? RIEL: De tout mon coeur, Père, j'en fais le sacrifice.
ANDRÉ: Louis, au moment de mourir regrettes-tu la vie?
RIEL: AU moment de franchir le seuil de l'éternité. Père, je n’éprouve nulle envie de revenir en arrière. ANDRÉ: Louis, pour l’amour de Dieu, pardonnes-tu aux ennemis qui ont obtenu ta mort?
RILL: Je leur pardonne, Père, comme Dieu me pardonne.
(André and Rie! commence to say the Lord’s Prayer. André speaks a phrase, and Riel repeats it, until it abruptly cats. AII this proceeds under a dialogue in the Macdonald set, where Taché and Lemieux approach Sir John.)
MACDONALD: I’ll thank you. Doctor
Schultz, to keep your bigotry to yourself. I never knew the friend I hang. TACHÉ: It’s almost time! Postpone the hour!
MACDONALD: I cannot let one foolish man stand in the way of a whole nation!
(The hells on Parliament Hill strike the hour: eight o’clock.) SCHULTZ: That’s it! (He checks his pocket watch.) His time is up!
(They stand there listening, while we hear, now at full level. André and Riel reciting the Lord’s Prayer. When it comes to the words, “Deliver us from evil,’’ there is a sudden blackout of the gallows, accompanied by the musical equivalent of the moment of hanging. The eighth bell sounds and dies away.) CROWD: Riel! Riel! Riel! SCHULTZ: The God damn son-of-a-bitch is dead!
(Taché bows his head in tears. Lemieux shakes Ills in profound disbelief. Macdonald looks loathingly at Schultz and crosses him, grandly and stubbornly going to face Ills parliament . . . The lights go down. The final curtain falls.) ★
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