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Robert Lepage returns to the COC

Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
10/17/2009 -  & 20, 22, 24, 30 October, 1, 2, 4, 5 November
Igor Stravinsky: The Nightingale and Other Short Fables
Simone Osborne (soprano) [Pribaoutki], Maria Radner (contralto) [Berceuses du Chat], Teiya Kasahara (soprano) [Two Poems of Konstantin Balmont], Adam Luther, Lothar Odinius (Tenors), Peter Barrett, Robert Pomakov (Baritones) [The Fox], Olga Peretyatko (Nightingale), Ilya Bannik (Emperor), Maria Radner (Death), Lothar Odinius (Fisherman), Laura Albino (Cook), Michael Uloth (The Bonze), Robert Pomakov (Chamberlain), Simone Osborne, Erin Fisher, Stephen McClare (Soloists), Adam Luther, Neil Craighead, Alexander Hajek (Japanese Envoys) [ The Nightingale]
Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and Chorus, Sandra Horst (Chorusmaster), Jonathan Darlington*/Jayce Ogren (Conductor)
Robert Lepage (Director), Carl Fillion (Set Designer), Mara Gottler (Costume Designer), Etienne Boucher (Lighting Designer), Martin Genest (Puppetry Choreographer)
(A co-production with Festival d’Aix-en-Provence and Opéra National de Lyon, in collaboration with Ex Machina, Québec City)

I. Bannik & M. Radner (© Michael Cooper)

Robert Lepage’s production of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables has caused more than a ripple (pun intended) of interest, largely due to the staging of the opera itself in a pool of water occupying the orchestra pit of the Four Seasons Centre.

The “Other Short Fables” occupy the first half of the program. The water-filled pit sits unused while a reduced orchestra (up to 20 members, depending on the piece) occupy the front section of the stage. Behind the orchestra is a raised platform fronted by a semi-transparent screen. A group of five acrobat/puppeteers cast hand shadows on to this screen from the front for some of the numbers, and then, during The Fox, manipulate shadow puppets from behind it. The technique producing the images is always evident.

The singers are located on raised platforms on either side of the pit. Since they are in front of the conductor and orchestra, video monitors are placed at the rear and sides of the auditorium so they can see his signals (things get even more complicated in the second part of the evening).

The first of the brief numbers is Ragtime, a spiky syncopated work (composed in 1918) for 11 instrumentalists. This is followed by the first of the Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet (also 1918), played by Ross Edwards. Then Pribaoutki (1914), four nonsense songs sung by Simone Osborne. Here is where the hand puppetry begins: the five Ex Machina members project images of rabbits, cats, babies, people drinking - all rather charming (what’s not to like?) Then Maria Radner sings the four whimsical songs of Berceuses du Chat (Cat’s Cradle, 1916), followed by Two Poems of Konstantin Balmont (1911), a Russian symbolist poet, very nicely sung by Teiya Kasahara. Then the second clarinet piece, followed by Four Russian Peasant Songs for a chorus of 10 women accompanied by four French horns. The songs have vivid texts (like the final one about a man sowing his field with lice and fleas), but this number doesn’t work musically: the chorus lacks bite and the horn accompaniment results in a battle neither side wins. Then we get the third clarinet piece, followed by The Fox (more widely known as Renard, its French title, although it is sung in Russian). It was originally meant as a ballet with the four singers (two tenors, two baritones) stationed in the orchestra pit. Here they are more advantageously heard raised above the pit; they perform with verve, as do the other singers.

To sum up, the first act (barely an hour long) contains nine brief pieces, each followed by applause for the (deserving) performers. I would have preferred a more continuous performance; as it stands, these slender pieces make only a fleeting impression by themselves and are prevented from making a cumulative effect by the too-frequent applause. Incidentally, none of them is a fable (a tale with a clear moral, usually involving anthropomorphized animals). Even The Fox, which has a degree of interaction between a fox, rooster, goat and cat, is more a barnyard burlesque.

The Nightingale is less than an hour long, but still contains three acts. The first act was composed in 1908, the second and third acts in 1914; Stravinsky composed his epochal Le Sacre du Printemps in the interval. A full-size orchestra now occupies the whole of the stage and finally the water-filled pit is used. Performers wade through waist-deep water while manipulating puppets on boats. Characters are doubled: singers are made up and in costume for their roles, while manipulating doll-size puppets designed to look exactly like them. There’s no real drama arising from this doubling. Robert Lepage seems simply wanted to put on a show using puppets - and a very lovely show it is. The puppets (and the full-size costumes for the performers) are glittering chinoiserie. During an orchestral interlude we are treated to frolicking water serpents. The designers deserve plaudits.

There is one big problem and that is one of scale. The puppets are doll-size, inappropriate in an auditorium seating 2100 people on five levels. Not only that, but the sight lines for most of the upper level seating are focused (quite rightly) on the stage, not the pit. The problem is frankly acknowledged by the presence of a screen suspended from the ceiling on which the stage (or, more correctly, orchestra pit) action is projected by a fixed camera. A good portion of the audience must thus watch a simulcast of the performance occurring in the same theatre in which they are sitting. Let’s not forget that the moral of The Nightingale is the superiority of the natural over the contrived. (And also don’t forget that the singers are watching video screens of the conductor who is placed upstage behind them.)

The logistics of all this are impressive, but they attempt to solve a problem that needn’t have arisen if only the stage itself was used to stage the works. Last season Toronto enjoyed a production of Rusalka that used water on stage without performers having to resort to wetsuits. And for the final brief act of The Nightingale, the puppets are abandoned as we see the Emperor confronted by Death, then saved by the return of the Nightingale. His sumptuous silken pavilion is transformed into a literal death bed (see photo above) in a breathtaking coup de théâtre and at last the production is larger, instead of smaller, than life. (That’s what we want from opera, isn’t it?)

The two other theatres this production is slated for (in Aix-en-Provence and Lyon) both seat around 1350. The problem of scale will be less severe, but will still be present.

Robert Lepage, to his credit, is not just focussed on technical wizardry: he gets wonderfully engaged and engaging performances from the singers thanks to stylized movement (choreography almost) that goes well with the music. The singers are in top form, with Olga Peretyatko a mesmerizing Nightingale. Thanks to the reverse staging we see lots of conductor Jonathan Darlington and he adds a dashing presence to the proceedings.

There were worries that the presence of all the water, plus the relocation of orchestra versus singers, would have an adverse effect on the acoustics. Happily, this is not a problem.

Such is the interest in this production that a ninth performance has been added (the one on November 2). Make sure you get a seat as close to the pit as possible.

Michael Johnson



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