This restaging of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, by Igor Stravinsky and directed by Robert Lepage at the Canadian Opera Company, takes you out of your comfort zone. Not only is an audience accustomed to the traditional opera form challenged by the work first presented by the COC in 2009, but so are the performers.
It starts with the COC orchestra, normally anonymous in the orchestra pit, front and center on stage in full view of the audience. Some of the members are in costume, so that as well as hitting the right notes, they have to strike the right poses. Meanwhile the orchestra pit is filled with water.
The short vignettes, the program before the intermission, set to Stravinsky’s music are tough to sing because the avant-garde, early 20th century Russian composer was already experimenting with tone and rhythm. Added to that is the staging by innovative Quebec director, Robert Lepage, who uses hand shadows, puppets, and acrobats projected behind a screen to create a theatrical experience that transcends the boundaries of the ordinary.
After the intermission you understand why the pit was filled with water. The singers perform The Nightingale in the water while manipulating elaborate hand puppets as they sing.
The story of The Nightingale is based on a tale by the Danish fairy tale author Hans Christian Andersen. Here’s the plot in brief: The emperor of China hears a nightingale who sings so sweetly it makes people weep. The emperor wants to reward the nightingale. Then the emperor of Japan gives him a mechanical nightingale and the genuine bird is banished. The emperor is dying. The nightingale returns, and Death is so moved that it spares the emperor and the nightingale is restored as “first singer”.
The theme of the Nightingale incorporates many Asian theatrical styles, particularly Japanese Noh theatre based on tales with supernatural beings transformed into humans integrating masks, costumes and props in dance-based performance.
The Nightingale and Other Short Fables also tells children’s stories about birds, rabbits, cats and foxes using animatronic techniques as old as storytelling. So, is it for children? Children aren’t as conditioned as traditional opera-lovers by opera conventions of over-wrought arias and prolonged death scenes. They will be transfixed by the puppets and the magic of the production and drawn to opera as previous generation were introduced to classical music by Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. More comfortable opera buffs, enjoy having your horizons broadened.
The Nightingale and Other Short Fables plays at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts until May 19. For more information and to purchase tickets, please click here!