Canadian Opera – The Nightingale

COC’s The Nightingale is a Visual and Auditory Delight

By Andrew Wagner-Chazalon

There are some evenings in the theatre where you realize early on that you are in for a truly remarkable experience. The opening night of the Canadian Opera Company’s latest production was one of those evenings.

This staging of Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and Other Short Fables is nothing short of breathtaking, a tour de force production that draws on an incredible array of talent to create something that is, in a quite literal sense, spectacular. This is opera as spectacle.

It’s not just that there are superb voices to be heard (although there are) or that the orchestra plays with precision and depth (although they do), or that the staging, costumes, lighting and puppetry are incredible (which they are); it’s that all these elements combine into such a unified, cohesive and supremely satisfying whole.

As the title implies, The Nightingale and Other Short Fables is not a single tale, but a collection of works by Igor Stravinsky which debuted between 1911 and 1919. Other than the composer, the only thing tying them together is that many of them feature animals as their central character.

The Magic of Puppetry

Canadian director Robert Lepage had the vision to use puppetry to unify these short pieces into a single, remarkable show. The production, which is a co-production with four other opera and theatre companies, saw its world premiere at the COC in 2009, and has since played to wide acclaim around the world. This revival, directed by Marilyn Gronsdal, is at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto for 10 performances.

From the very beginning, operatic conventions are turned around in this production. The orchestra is seated on the stage, while the orchestra pit has been flooded and turned into a metre-deep pool that serves as performance space for The Nightingale.

The first half of the production is given over to a series of short pieces, punctuated by one of Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet, adroitly played by Juan Olivares. In each segment, we are treated to breathtaking displays of puppetry, beginning with the most primitive – shadow hand puppetry, which Lepage has said was surely the beginning of theatre itself.

As soloists in traditional Russian garb sing – soprano Danika Loren particularly stands out – six acrobat-puppeteers interpret the fabulist texts, using their hands to project characters onto a screen. Later, they move behind the screen for full-body shadow play, transforming themselves into foxes, roosters, goats and more as four male soloists sing The Fox, a morality tale which Stravinsky described as “a burlesque for stage with singing and music.”  It’s all mesmerizing stuff, but the best is yet to come.

The Tale of The Nightingale

The second half of this short evening consists of The Nightingale, a setting of a Hans Christian Anderson tale about a bird who befriends a Chinese emperor, and whose song is so sweet that it convinces Death itself to let the Emperor live in order that the singing may continue.

Jane Archibald caps a triumphant artist-in-residence season with a breathtaking turn as The Nightingale. The delicacy and power of her singing are perfect for this role, particularly in the a capella sections where each note hangs in the air like a starry jewel.

Archibald is the only singer in this part of the evening who doesn’t face the task of simultaneously singing and controlling a puppet version of themselves, a feat made even more impressive for those who must also perform while standing waist-deep in water. Tenor Owen McCausland’s performance as the fisherman who first hears the nightingale sing would be captivating even if he wasn’t also guiding a five-foot sampan through the moonlit waters and making his puppet alter-ego cast a net out on the water.

Even the 30-plus member chorus performs with puppets. In all, there are 75 different puppets, exquisitely designed by Michael Curry (whose work has also been seen in The Lion King and Cirque du Soleil).

The final act of The Nightingale unveils yet another level of puppetry, as Death – sung beautifully by Lindsay Amman – appears as a giant skeleton, shifting the visual scale to a satisfying climax.

The Nightingale and Other Short Fables is playing until May 19th. Many performances have limited ticket availability.

The Canadian Opera Company’s 2017-2018 season wraps up with Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, which is on stage from April 24th to May 26th.

For tickets and other details, visit the Canadian Opera Company’s website at http://m.coc.ca/Home.aspx

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Andrew Wagner-Chazalon has been writing professionally for several decades. He has lived in the UK, Australia and Canada, and currently enjoys luxurious things in Muskoka, a region the New York Times calls “the Hamptons of the North.”