COC take Nightingale to BAM

Brooklyn Academy of Music

Poolside, BAM (psst... didn't that used to be the orchestra pit?). Photo © Canadian Opera Company

Gosh darn…(!)

I am not going to Brooklyn to see the remount of a Canadian Opera Company production that I saw in November 2009; but i figured i would repost excerpts from a review posted to drama.ca, as a kind of preview, plus some photos taken at the site of the current production.  The review makes a tiny mention of the second opera (Madama Butterfly) mounted at the time; but I believe it’s still pertinent to the BAM installation.  In case you can’t tell, I am a huge fan of this production.  I enjoyed re-reading what i wrote in 2009, which is still pertinent now.

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The East Is Golden [originally posted November 2009 at drama.ca]

The two operas presented by the Canadian Opera Company this autumn at the Four Seasons Theatre –The Nightingale and Other Short Fables by Stravinsky, and Madama Butterfly by Puccini—appear to be a perfect pair. Both evenings of opera (including short Stravinsky works not usually understood as “opera”) were written in the 20th century. Both take their title from a non-human avian creature. Both rely heavily upon a single female star for their impact. Both are oriental in focus, even if their music is European. And although the East is sometimes red, both works have been box office gold for the COC.

And that is probably where the similarities end.

Whereas the delicate set and costumes of Butterfly make it possibly the fastest production to set up or take down, of all possible operas that the COC has in its repertoire, Nightingale entails a setup so complex that its mise-en-scène upstages the work. But how can one argue with the results? For the second time, the COC handed Robert Lepage a daunting modernist project that he converted not just into an exciting evening of theatre, but a money-maker and guaranteed sell-out requiring additional performances to meet demand. The first time was in the early 1990s when Lepage staged the double bill of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Schönberg’s Erwartung.

beside the pit

In addition to the unorthodox placement of the orchestra, there are also several interesting placements of singers, dancers & puppeteers. Photo © Canadian Opera Company

The current project appears to be every bit as forbidding, in the choice of unfamiliar repertoire from a composer known to be dissonant to the ear and difficult to execute. But Lepage and his company Ex Machina hand us a coup de theatre before the show begins. Opera is usually a daunting form to theatre practitioners, placing an enormous yawning orchestra pit full of musicians between the stage and the audience. Under normal circumstances, singers offer variously dramatic interpretations, but only after they have devoted themselves to the imposing task of learning their music and then singing their parts.

Not this time. Lepage evicts the orchestra, filling the pit with water. Did he need to do this? Possibly; but the strongest message it sends is that the normal business of the opera house has been overturned, and that the conductor has been removed from his usual place of oversight.

And the singers who usually give indifferent performances were in for a shock when they came to this production, which changes –if not completely subverts—their usual role. A singing-actor is in fact a curious hybrid, as some have previously observed. Julie Taymor for example, has used dancers with offstage singers in place of the usual hybrid. Lepage turns to the precedent of bun raku, the oriental style of puppets that are a compound figure comprised of a voice and manipulated puppet. The arbitrary separation of voice and animated body makes sense when we remember what opera has been for most of its history: a singer giving almost their entire attention to vocal production, while sparing a comparatively smaller part of their attention for their dramatic portrayal. In the past few decades this balance has shifted somewhat, but even the finest singing actors are required first to bring their vocal technique to a level where they can offer a good dramatic portrayal.

Lepage’s presentation of The Nightingale does not settle for singers who do a little acting. Instead we get puppets, some actually manipulated by the singers: and the singers coped remarkably well with the challenge. The gentlemen in question could hardly be accused of being prima donnas, to be singing, manipulating puppets, and all while slogging through water up to their waist. So in addition to the demotion of the orchestra and conductor, Lepage knocks at least some of his singers off their pedestal as well.

Does it work? I think it depends on where you sit. For the performance when I sat near the front, I was enchanted. But when I was up in the purgatory of the fifth circle–a location that acquired a genuinely Dantesque association—I could not see the show properly. Admittedly, the COC advertised the deficiencies of those seats in advance. Curiously, the appetite for tickets was so strong that nobody seemed to mind until they actually saw the show. The friends with whom I attended that second performance were decidedly unimpressed.

Why did Lepage do it this way, making so many of the puppets too small to be seen from anywhere but the best seats? After all there are some huge puppets in the show, and surely the expense was not the reason. I think there is a clear rationale when one looks at the climactic image of The Nightingale. For most of the opera humans manipulate small puppets, creating a scale that is appropriate for a chamber work. Then the Emperor goes to sleep. He is confronted by Death, a puppet that reverses the usual template with electrifying effect. Suddenly the human is tiny, surrounded by the huge expressive skeleton shape of Death. This reversal struck me as highly symbolic, making the fragile Emperor seem like the puppet, controlled by the powerful figure of Death. Without the tiny scale of the puppets in the rest of the opera, the effect would not have been possible.

In fact, Nightingale comes across primarily as theatrical spectacle, and is only operatic en passant. The figure of the Nightingale is an irrepressible coloratura, capably sung by Olga Peretyatko. The remainder is picturesque, without testing the skills of the COC singers. The most successful singer of the evening—setting the gentle mood of the opening and close of the work, in addition to manipulating puppets—was Lothar Odinius as the Fisherman.

Stravinsky provided the remainder of the program’s Other Short Fables. Although there is one medium-sized work –The Fox, a vehicle for puppets of a completely different style from those in Nightingale—most of the first portion of the evening is a series of miniatures, more of a chamber concert than opera, helping to whet the audience’s appetite for the subsequent spectacle, in a series of works that require patient listening. Conductor Jonathan Darlington and the COC orchestra were more visible playing from the stage rather than the pit, bringing out the delicate colours as much as the occasional dissonance.

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If you’d like to hear a performance from the 2009 season that was broadcast on CBC, click here: The Nightingale and Other Fables, previously broadcast on CBC .  The BAM production begins March 1st 2011.

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