When is an opera not an opera? When it’s a masque? A variety show? Does it even matter? The Canadian Opera Company’s Nightingale and Other Short Fables, which opened on Saturday afternoon certainly makes a person wonder. Rather than have an operatic existential crisis Canadian director Robert Lepage instead concentrated on creating a show that worked no matter what the label.
The main attraction was Stravinsky’s The Nightingale. It is rarely staged because at 45 minutes long, it only makes up half of an opera evening. To circumvent this not-insubstantial problem, Lepage partially staged several of Stravinsky’s songs, the farmyard tale The Fox, the three solo pieces for clarinet and his orchestral piece Ragtime.
As an overture, Ragtime lacked oomph but the rest of the repertoire was spot on. It was obvious that rather than hastily throwing together whatever was nearest, Lepage had spent a considerable amount of time choosing what pieces would suit the aesthetic best.
Conductor Jonathan Darlington stood on a podium-shaped pier in the 67000-litre pool with the orchestra in front of him on stage. His back was to the singers, who were in front of the proscenium, on top of the flooded pit. His tendency towards gestural restraint helped, for the most part, to keep singers and orchestra together and also ensured he didn’t end up in the drink during a particularly vigorous passage.
While the singing was generally good, it was the shadow puppets that stole the show in the first half. For the songs, hand puppets of astonishing detail, elegance and wit were employed. Miles more sophisticated than the clumsy butterflies or dogs we all projected on our bedroom walls as children, the artists created a mother rocking infant child, men drinking beer, a blossoming flowers, birds, several cats and a family of rabbits.
In The Fox, the shadow puppets grew to human sized as acrobats created a fox, a goat, a cock and a cat with their bodies behind a scrim. Lepage cut off the scrim at the acrobats’ knees so their movements were visible. Rather than ruining the magic, it threw the juxtaposition between fantasy and reality into high relief.
Darlington and the orchestra took several giant steps upstage in the second half to allow the chorus to form a silk brocade wall at the edge of the pool. Happily mixing Thai and Vietnamese puppetry with Chinese and Japanese costumes, the designers took their cues from the chinoiserie of the score. The water puppets are roughly three feet tall and are operated by singers standing waist deep in the pool. Each singer is made up to match his or her mini-me.
With the water reflecting the light over the sides and ceiling of the house, the very first boat puppet slowly made its way across the pool, casting a spell that was broken only by the final applause.
Most of the singing parts are minor however Stravinsky was generous when writing the part of the Nightingale. Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko achieved the ultimate coup in her COC debut: making the audience pay attention to her rather than the puppets.
The Nightingale and Other Short Fables is a production that compels a critic to gush forth all sorts of glowing adjectives without ever really being able to properly describe what exactly makes it so great. Since Miss Mussel tends towards anaphalaxis when she gets within 10 feet of an empty descriptor, she spent quite a lot of time puzzling over why the production was so spellbinding. Finally it came, as these things do, in the middle of the night:
Throughout the Nightingale, there was a full moon projected on a screen behind the orchestra. Nothing especially remarkable about that. Or so Miss Mussel thought. It was only when the opera was nearly over that she realized the screen was actually the bass drum. The production team’s attention to detail and commitment to imaginatively solving technical problems is what made the evening truly special rather than merely a well-executed novelty.