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Lepage and Stravinsky - A Marriage Made in Heaven

Salle Louis-Fréchette, Grand Théâtre de Québec
08/02/2011 -  & August 3*, 5, 6, 2011
Igor Stravinsky: Ragtime – Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo – Pribaoutki – Cat Lullabies – Two Poems of Constantin Balmont – Four Russian Peasant Songs – Renard – Le Rossignol
Julia Novikova (Nightingale), Edgaras Montvidas (Fisherman), Elena Semenova (Cook) Ilya Bannik (Emperor of China), Nabil Suliman (Chamberlain), Yuri Vorobiev (Bonze), Svetlana Shilova (Death), Adam Luther (First Japanese ambassador), Réal Toupin (Second Japanese ambassador), Vincent A. Karche (Third Japanese ambassador),
Andrea Ciacci, Noam Markus, Wellesley Robertson, Caroline Tanguay, and Martin Vaillancourt (Marionettists/acrobats)
Stéphane Fontaine (Clarinet)
Chœur de femmes de l’Opéra de Québec, Réal Toupin (Conductor), Chœur de l’Opéra de Québec, Réal Toupin (Conductor), Orchestre symphonique de Québec, Johannes Debus (Conductor)

Robert Lepage (direction), Ex Machina (conception, sets, lighting, and costumes)
Co-production with the Canadian Opera Company (Toronto), Festival d’art lyrique d’Aix-en-Provence, Opéra national de Lyon and De Nederlandse Opera in collaboration with Ex Machina (Québec)

(© Michael Cooper/Courtesy of Opéra de Québec)

Robert Lepage, Quebec’s reigning artistic Wunderkind (who is staging the new Ring for the Metropolitan Opera) has orchestrated a magical operatic sensation. Using Chinese shadow play, acrobats, marionettes, a dazzling set anchored by 40 tonnes of water in the orchestra pit, and a bevy of young singers (of which four are Russian), his production of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol et autres fables (The Nightingale and other Fables) is conquering the hearts of those lucky to see it at Opéra de Québec’s first summer festival (Québec Opera Festival).

Preceding Le Rossignol, Lepage offered a selection of short Stravinsky works, including Renard (The Fox). He used five multitalented marionnettists/acrobats to project hand illustrations of the actions depicted by the singers onto a rectangular screen above the orchestra, which he placed on the stage. Johannes Debus, Music Director of the Canadian Opera Company, conducted from a small platform in the pond that filled the orchestra pit.

Eleven members of the Orchestre symphonique de Québec (OSQ) opened with Ragtime. Its jazzy, contrapuntal rhythms established a relaxed, upbeat mood. Stéphane Fontaine, principal clarinet of the OSQ, followed with the Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo. He played these (interspersed with the other works) with impeccable technique and taste. Svetlana Shilova sang Priaboutki and Cat Lullabies with sensitivity and colour. Her dusky soprano later also served her well as “Death” in Le Rossignol. Between the two lullabies the soprano Elena Semenova sang Two Poems of Constanin Balmont with conviction and grace. About a dozen members of the Chœur de femmes de l’Opéra de Québec rounded off this section with a loving rendition of Four Russian Folk Songs.

Lepage illustrated Renard with incredibly realistic shadow plays performed by the marionettists/acrobats working behind the screen and using masks and props such as fox and chicken tails. Renard is a piece for four male voices. The tenors Adam Luther and Edgaras Montvidas as well as baritone Nabil Suliman delivered admirably, but Ilya Bannik had trouble projecting his voice. He overcame this problem, however, for a solid performance of the Emperor in Le Rossignol.

Le Rossignol, on the second half of the program, brought the production to an even higher level of imagination and creativity. Now Debus was on the stage and the principal action had moved to the pond, using the former conductor’s podium that had unfolded to provide a little more space to accommodate some of the action, which principally occurred in small boats big enough to hold three marionettes and one singer. The singers manipulated the marionettes while singing waist deep in the water. (The Emperor was eventually moved to the little platform.) The male and female chorus of about 30 (each with a different, multi-coloured costumed marionette!) was positioned on stage in front of the conductor. They and the other singers relied on two large, flat-screened TV monitors hung from the front of the first balcony for the conductor’s directions. The boats, dragons, ducks, ox, a giant throat-palpitating frog, a goose carrying golden eggs (one was offered to and accepted by the Emperor) frolicked and traversed life-like from one indoor moat to the other under the two Chinese balconies at each side of the stage. A large tree branch hung above the water from the right balcony. And a russet-coloured moon projected unto the side of the orchestra’s bass drum on stilts provided a visual link between the action in the pond and the screen now being used for the surtitles. (A smaller, higher screen was used for the preceding works.) The movements of all were perfectly coördinated with the music.

The singing was first rate. Saint-Petersburg native Julia Novikova as the Nightingale sang with effortless purity (not a trace of vibrato), tossed off her coloratura lines with ease and could hold some notes longer than most singers would dare. She infused her acting with grace and charm. Montvidas as the Fisherman sang with exceptional musicality; Semenova shone as the Cook; Suliman delivered a fine Bonze and Yuri Vorobiev was perfectly menacing, then cowed, as Death. When Death appeared (as a gigantic skeleton), the ailing Emperor was nestled in Death’s lap in the middle of the platform, as her legs jangled in the water, her arms flailed in the air, and her head sang from inside an elongated skull that recalled Edvard Munch’s Scream, completed about the same time (1910) as Stravinsky began Le Rossignol (1908).

As this is a co-production among four opera companies in collaboration with Robert Lepage’s “Ex Machina,” my guess is that for the most part the same cast is appearing in all productions; otherwise the training required to learn and integrate the various components would be phenomenal.

From my seat in the side orchestra about three-quarters back the gnarled branch of the tree blocked some of the surtitles. The branch was eventually dismembered, however, by long poles with hooks on the ends held by the marionnettists/acrobats, who were now tightly sheathed in black to manipulate the creatures in the water. Also, the glare from the TV monitors was distracting.

Le Rossignol et autres fables received the Claude-Rostand Award from the Syndicat de la critique en France for the best production “in the provinces” (Aix-en-Provence) in 2010-11. It was well merited!

Festival Opéra de Québec

Earl Arthur Love



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