There are some opera directors who have brilliant minds, fertile imaginations, an unerring sense of theatre and the ability to recreate classical works to appear astonishingly new. But how many have the imagination and artistic prowess to leap into a creative approach that few mortals can conceive and even fewer can achieve? Not many.
Robert Lepage is one of the few who can and his production of Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and Other Short Fables is submitted as Exhibit 1. Have you ever seen an opera performed in a pool with puppets and shadow theatre?? The current production by the Canadian Opera Company is a revival of the 2009 premiere in Toronto and it does that and much more.
Jane Archibald as the Nightingale, Oleg Tsibulko as the Emperor (centre) and
Lindsay Ammann as Death. Photo: Michael Cooper
The Nightingale is a short work and we are therefore treated to some delicious aperitifs that make up the Other Short Fables. These are eight short pieces and a 15-minute opera, The Fox. We have several concert pieces such as Ragtime and Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet, and Four Russian Peasant Songs.
The Fox tells the story of the cocky and stupid cock who is fooled into leaving his perch twice by the wily fox. He is saved by the goat and the cat. It includes some athletic dancing and splendid shadow theatre to accompany the fine singing of tenors Miles Mykkanen and Owen McCausland, and baritones Bruno Roy and Oleg Tsibulko.
The Nightingale is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s Nightingale and tells the story of the fisherman (McCausland) who, in the stillness of the moonlit dawn, listens to the delicate and magical singing of that bird. Lepage sets the opera in a pool and The Fisherman is manipulating a puppet. Soprano Jane Archibald who sings the mesmerizing notes of the nightingale is on a raised platform on the side of the stage and we see the little bird flitting around.
Jane Archibald as the Nightingale and Oleg Tsibulko as the Emperor. Photo: Michael Cooper
The nightingale is taken to the Emperor of China (Oleg Tsibulko) who is enchanted by its singing and offers it an award of a golden slipper.
The combined visual and vocal effects are quite stunning. The colorful costumes that are worn by the characters and the entire chorus, the pool and the music create an unrealistic, magical atmosphere that is farm removed from the ordinary world and placed in the fabulous milieu of the story.
The shimmering water of the pool is projected onto the ceiling of the theatre but the magic is shattered when Japanese envoys bring a mechanical nightingale and the real one flies away. Nightingales are banished by the emperor. Death (Lindsay Ammann) appears represented by a huge skull and outstretched bony arms ready to claim the sick emperor.
The nightingale returns and there is restoration, resurrection and re-instatement of the nightingale which will sing to the emperor in the stillness of the night forever.
Jane Archibald sings such a haunting, delicate and ethereal nightingale that we forget her presence on stage and imagine the flitting puppet as doing the singing. McCausland’s Fisherman is lyrical in his nostalgia for his companion and the Tsbulko’s Emperor is commanding. The rest of the cast including the chorus do fine work.
Johannes Debus conducts the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra in a production that pushes the visual boundaries of opera that a Robert Lepage and few other directors are capable of producing.
The Nightingale and Other Short Fables by Igor Stravinsky continues on various dates until May 19, 2018 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. www.coc.ca