By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh
I never sat so straight at an opera as I did at the Canadian Opera Company’s production of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables Tuesday night.
Only once 16 years ago, when I chanced on COC’s Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung at the then O’Keefe Centre and came out feeling like I had just seen something so cool that I was therefore cool from having seen it.
It’s no surprise then that the mastermind behind that still-talked-about double bill in Toronto is the very same one responsible for my straight back throughout the two-hour program at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts — Canadian director Robert Lepage.
Lepage’s new and second production for the COC is a collage of Igor Stravinsky’s two short operas —The Nightingale and The Fox — and other vocal and instrumental pieces, including Ragtime, Pribaoutki, and three pieces for solo clarinet, played beautifully by Ross Edwards.
Yes, there was the much-publicized swimming pool (67,000 litres of water in the orchestra pit), in which singers stood and sang in The Nightingale, a three-act 45-minute fairy-tale opera set in ancient China.
The orchestra played on stage.
Different as the reversed arrangement may seem, when the opera premiered in Paris in 1914, singers were also placed in the pit by Sergei Diaghilev, who commissioned Stravinsky some of his best-known works — The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring.
Aside from the water, there were puppets, 75 in total, including eight Japanese Bunraku puppets and 37 Taiwanese and Chinese puppets.
Again, the puppets alone are not that different. Lepage said he saw puppetry used in an opera several years ago, and last year, in Anthony Mighella’s staging of Madama Butterly for the Metropolitan Opera, a Bunraku-style puppet actually took a child’s place to play Cio-Cio-San’s son.
What made Lepage’s production so mind-boggling is the way he pulls various elements together and layers them in seamlessly with the orchestration, the singing, and the drama.
Russian lyric soprano Olga Peretyatko, who launched her career in 2007 after placing second at Placido Domingo’s Operalia singing competition, was a seductive and charming nightingale, her night calls clear as a whistle.
One of the most spellbinding moment for me was the opening of The Nightingale, when German tenor Lothar Odinius as the fisherman, whose supple voice moved the story along, walked out in waist-deep water with a boat and a puppet, the orchestra's humming murmur under Jonathan Darlington's baton floating amidst the fog.
Even if I knew nothing about Stravinsky, or opera, or classical music, it was an arresting scene I would have paused and pressed replay if I could.
With lavish costumes for the singers and their puppets, Lepage's Nightingale is a feast to the human eye. There was so much to see, the only downside was deciding where to focus your gaze on.
The first half of the program, consisting of Stravinsky's short works, was presented continuously with intriguing and complex hand shadow and full-body acrobatic shadow puppetry on a scrim.
Quite frankly, I found the puppetry so fascinating I barely had time to look at the singers, who were propped up on either side of the swimming pool.
The Nightingale and Other Short Fables is by far the most visually imaginative creation I have ever seen in a musical performance. It was like watching Cirque du Soleil at the opera without the high jumps.
The music and the singing were fantastic, but opera has never looked so cool and I have definitely never been cooler.
The Nightingale and Other Short Fables continues at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Tickets for the remaining shows are sold out. However, the COC has added an extra performance on Monday, Nov. 2 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available online at coc.ca, by calling 416-363-8231, or in person at the Four Seasons Centre Box Office (145 Queen St. W., Toronto).
Labels: COC, Concert_Review, opera, Robert Lepage, toronto