The COC’s revival of Robert Lepage’s 2009 production of Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, revived by Marilyn Gronsdal, is a delightful mix of witty and clever stagecraft coupled with some fine music making. It’s very much a work of two contrasting halves. The first is a carefully constructed program of shorter Stravinsky vocal and instrumental works; all from the period 1911-1919 and all with a sound world reminiscent of The Firebird or Petrouchka rather than The Rite of Spring or the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto. The full line up was:
- Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet No.1
- Berceuses du chat
- Two Poems of Konstantin Balmont
- Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet No.2
- Four Russian Peasant Songs
- Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet No.3
- The Fox
This was all staged with the orchestra (line up changing frequently) on stage with the singers, when required at the front of stage. Ragtime served as a sort of overture with the clarinet pieces, played in costume, and most beautifully, by Juan Olivares, acting as a link and an opportunity for the orchestra to rearrange for the next piece. The first three vocal pieces, sung respectively by Allyson McHardy, Lindsay Amman and Danika Lorén were accompanied by exquisite and often very funny shadow puppetry projected from a sort of island at house left onto a screen above the orchestra that also served for the surtitles. The peasant songs were sung by eight of the ladies of the chorus sitting with their feet dabbling the water in the orchestra pit; the first sign that it was flooded!
The Fox was the meatiest piece of the first half with the two tenors (Miles Mykanen and Owen McAusland) and two baritones (Bruno Roy and Oleg Tsibulko) again at the front of the stage but this time there were acrobats behind the screen backlit. They managed to make some truly fascinating patterns as they told the story of The Cockerel who is fooled by Mother Fox, only for the latter to fall victim to the machinations of The Cat and The Ram. There were some really striking effects and some fine singing. And so the first half ended. The staging was clever and fast moving but largely monochrome and, in a sense, minimalistic; a contrast with what was to come.
The main event was, of course, The Nightingale; a rather wistful tale in which the Emperor of China is ransomed from Death by the beautiful song of The Nightingale. The staging here was a riot of jewel and metallic colours in marked contrast to what had come before. The big exception being, of course, The Nightingale herself, whose dowdy appearance belies the beauty of her song. Each character is paired with a puppet double and most of the action takes place in the flooded orchestra pit. Owen McCausland, as The Fisherman carries a lot of the narrative and spends most of his stage time up to the chest in water. He sang quite beautifully, as well as anything he has done so far at the COC (and he has a more than decent record). Perhaps they should immerse him more often? Then there’s the vocal star of the show; Jane Archibald as The Nightingale. Her music is exactly what one would expect and is matched by her fluttery puppet double flitting around the stage. It’s a perfect part for her light, pretty, flexible soprano. She pulled off the trills and other effects with aplomb.
There’s a large supporting cast with Oleg Tsibulko impressing as The Emperor. He’s got the requisite dark, Slavic low notes and generally conveyed the gravitas of the part well. Lindsay Amman as Death gave us a nice cameo too. There were no weak links among the rest of a mostly young and Canadian cast. The COC orchestra and chorus were excellent under the musical direction of Johannes Debus who, as ever, seems to find just the right musical idiom for each work. But the last word has to go to Lepage and the puppeteers. Besides the main characters, especially the fluttering Nightingale, there were super kinetic dragons, a giant skeletal Death puppet and some real clever work with fabric in the water to create various effects. Lepage at his best is a master of stagecraft and this show pulls out all the stops.
The Nightingale and Other Short Fables is a compact (two and a quarter hours including interval) and thoroughly entertaining show which I would recommend for kids of all ages from four to four hundred. It’s a show that would make a great first opera experience. It’s playing at the Four Seasons Centre with nine more performances between tonight and May 19th.
For the record, and they deserve acknowledgement, the puppeteers and acrobats are:
- Andrea Ciacci
- Andréanne Joubert
- Noam Markus
- Desmond Osborne
- Wellesley Robertson III
- Martin Vaillancourt
Photo credits: Michael Cooper