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The Nightingale and Other Short Fables

Robert Lepage's production of short works by Igor Stravinsky is both a visual and an aural treat. logo
A scene from The Nightingale
(© Michael Cooper)
Mixing elegance and whimsy, director Robert Lepage's production of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, is both a visual and an aural treat. This collection of short works from composer Igor Stravinsky is sung in Russian by the Canadian Opera Company (with English surtitles), with conductor Johannes Debus presiding over a rather large and impressive orchestra.

Three pieces within the first act are not simply a showcase for singers Wallis Giunta, Teiya Kasahara, and Meredith Arwady, they're also an amazing vehicle for a small troupe of actors who create wonderful -- and often hilarious -- hand shadows. A rabbit begging for a hit of moonshine, a cat preening, and a baby rocking in a cradle are just some of the images created in collaboration with hand shadow expert Philippe Beau.

Two tenors (Adam Luther and Lothar Odinius) and two baritones (Peter Barrett and Ilya Bannik) provide the vocals for The Fox, the lengthiest work in the first half of the program. As they sing, a group of performers behind a scrim act out this story of a fox tricking a rooster into becoming the wily predator's next meal, using a mix of athleticism and creative shadow theater. While it is generally well sung, Bannik seems to have difficulty projecting, perhaps because his part would be more suited to a bass.

Indeed, Bannik also plays The Emperor of China in The Nightingale, which comprises the entirety of the second act, and he has no trouble making himself heard here. Based on a Hans Christian Andersen short story, the piece tells of a nightingale (Olga Peretyatko) whose beautiful singing convinces Death (Meredith Arwady) not to take the Emperor.

Peretyatko has a mellifluous voice that rings out clearly and beautifully, making it easy to understand why this bird has so captivated all who hear it sing. Fine work is also done by Odinius, who plays the Fisherman who first tells the audience of the nightingale and its wondrous gift of song.

For this act, Lepage and set designer Carl Fillion have filled the orchestra pit with 12,000 gallons of water to create the illusion of a small lake. Each of the characters is not only embodied by an actor dressed in a style evoking Ancient China (costumes are by Mara Gottler), but also by a puppet, designed by Michael Curry. This allows the nightingale to fly freely around the stage, and for numerous characters to traverse the lake in small boats. Several of the singers even perform while half submerged in water!

Since the evening's subject matter is rooted in fables, it would be an excellent introduction to opera for children who are old enough to appreciate it, even as it remains a magical evening for adults who may find themselves feeling like kids again as they take delight in the pure showmanship of the production.

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