Stravinsky: The Nightingale & Other Short Fables

October 19, 2009, Tamara Bernstein, Globe and Mail

Toronto opera audiences have waited 16 years for Robert Lepage to return with a sequel to his magnificent 1993 debut with the Canadian Opera Company (a Bartok-Schoenberg double bill). But the Quebec director’s extraordinary new creation for the COC - a program of short, early works by Igor Stravinsky - has proved well worth the wait, and is a high-water mark for the company. 

Sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun: As everyone who follows the news probably knows by now, Lepage has filled the COC’s orchestra pit with 67,000 litres of water, and brought in 75 puppets and five acrobat-puppeteers who spend the second half of the show performing, often alongside singers, in a metre of water. 

Chutzpah? Directorial hybris? Actually, Lepage’s boundary-stretching is very much in the spirit of the composer. Stravinsky was a confirmed opera-phobe when he composed the stage works on Lepage’s program - The Fox and The Nightingale: He banished the singers to the orchestra pit, leaving the stage to acrobats and dancers. And The Nightingale, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s Orphic tale of a nightingale whose singing defeats death, is steeped in the Orientalism of its day, so the Asian puppetry, crafted by Michael Curry, is perfectly kosher. 

But what really matters is that Lepage’s production is a masterpiece - do try to see it! Imagine the poetry of Cirque du Soleil at its purest, minus any gratuitous spectacle (and with way better music); add the enchantment of puppetry; gorgeous sets and lighting (by Carl Fillion and Étienne Boucher respectively), and a cast that radiates a joyous dedication to the production, and you start to get a sense of the magical storytelling that took hold at Saturday’s premiere. 

I wondered beforehand what Lepage could possibly do with the light songs that make up most of the first half of the program. But exclamations of delight burst from the audience as the Pribaoutki (Nonsense Songs, 1914) - got under way, and virtuosic shadow hand-puppets - adorable cats, tenderly cradled infants, drunken peasants, a cross-eyed hare, and more - brought the lyrics to life on a screen behind the onstage orchestra: They were created by a quintet of acrobats stationed on a balcony at the front of stage right. 

It was like being transported into the heart of a child; suddenly the nonsensical lyrics made perfect sense - or rather, one no longer cared whether they made sense or not. In The Fox - a loosely-constructed folk tale about a vixen’s attempts to catch a cock - the acrobats moved onto the stage. Working mostly in entwined pairs, they created exquisite, full-body silhouettes of the animals. 

The joy of the performance came not only from the animal grace of the acrobats (and laugh-out-loud wit), but also from the harmony of music and gesture - each squiggle in the orchestra; each flourish of the voice finding a perfect expression in the acrobats’ bodies. 

Ross Edwards performed the Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet in instalments, each piece serving as a palate cleanser between groups of vocal works. But with each successive piece, the clarinet’s “voice” seemed more connected to the music of the Russian language, thus charting the evening’s ever-deepening spell of enchantment. 

The Nightingale, with its spectacular, poetic water puppetry, sumptuous costumes and gorgeous lighting, was the theatrical and emotional climax. The pairing of several principal singers - standing in water! - and puppets was surprisingly moving. 

Through brilliant use of scale, the designers created the illusion that the small Bunraku puppets were normal-sized, so the semi-submerged singers - especially the Fisherman (German tenor Lothar Odinius) - seemed like giant, guardian spirits for their puppet-characters. That, perhaps, was the ultimate feeling of the show: of a tenderly protective spirit - that of childhood wonder, perhaps - hovering over us all.
In this context, quibbles are small. I would in theory prefer more native Russian singers - Olga Peretyatko’s Nightingale was a standout not only because of her radiant coloratura, but because of her strong connection to the language. Yet I wouldn’t give up Odinius’s sweet tenor, and the noble humility he gave the Fisherman. Laura Albino was delightful as the Cook; indeed, there were no weak links in the strong ensemble cast (apart from a thin-sounding women’s chorus in the Four Russian Peasant Songs). The COC orchestra, conducted on this occasion by Jonathan Darlington, was its usual excellent self. The show continues selected days through Nov. 5.