There’s another signature production for the Canadian Opera Company. At one time it was Robert Lepage’s double bill of Bluebeard’s Castle & Erwartung but I think a more recent Lepage opus has at least joined it, if not taken its place.
Premiered in 2009, and having since been co-produced by Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Opéra de Lyon and taken on tour by the COC to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2011, The Nightingale and other short fables is back at the Four Seasons Centre. The demand for tickets means that they’ve already added another performance even though it just opened this weekend.
I remember it from 2009, and with the benefit of hindsight think I see its influence. In the decade since its premiere we’ve seen similar flamboyance from smaller companies in the city, and I can’t help thinking: Lepage was their inspiration. It’s an opera that isn’t precisely an opera. We’re looking at a short opera –The Nightingale is subtitled ”conte lyrique”—while the only other piece that might qualify as opera is a “farmyard burlesque in one scene”. The evening is filled out with songs & instrumental music surrounding a flamboyant assortment of visuals, including a variety of types of puppetry. What Lepage showed us was that genre really doesn’t matter. As “Against the Grain Theatre” showed us (to name just one example), is that an opera company makes theatre whether or not the text being presented is “opera” or not. I remember asking a listserv the question “what is opera”, as I struggled with definitions; one answer I received was “if opera singers do it, it’s opera”. I laughed that off, but realize now that this is essentially what we’re seeing. If you were presenting a musical or a song cycle with an opera singing cast suddenly it’s a viable text for an opera company, as we regularly see all over North America. If you take a bunch of songs and assemble them into a piece of theatre using opera singers + serious musicianship you can legitimately present such things as opera. That’s what we’ve been seeing in Toronto for several years, and maybe it started with this seminal creation.
I think it’s better this time. Directed for the revival by Marilyn Gronsdal, conducted by Johannes Debus, and starring Jane Archibald (the Nightingale) and Owen McCausland (the Fisherman), the production seems as light as spun sugar, but without the calories. There’s a great deal of beautiful singing in addition, from Danika Lorèn, Allyson McHardy, Miles Mykkanen, Lauren Eberwein, Lindsay Ammann and Oleg Tsibulko (just to same some of the shining lights). And the COC Chorus shine as well.
I wrote about the show as a spoil-sport the first time I saw it, perhaps unkind rather than properly appreciative. I joked that Lepage really wanted to show the singers & conductor who’s boss:
- Evicting the orchestra from the pit, which was then filled with water
- Putting the orchestra at the back of the stage
- Getting many of the singers to slog around in water up to their waists (for instance look at Owen McCausland in the photo above)
I’m reminded of the first time I saw one of Pina Bausch’s pieces where she radically re-thinks the stage, such as those pieces where she lays sod on top of the stage-floor, creating a subtly perfumed air in the theatre. This is something like that. You walk into the theatre and immediately can sense something fundamentally different in the air. Sometimes the light is bouncing off the water, creating a fabulous light-show inside the theatre all around. Sometimes you’re watching the show reflected in the water.
And of course there’s the matter of the diverse assortment of puppetry, a kind of smorgasbord, coming at you from several directions in different ways. Michael Curry, Martin Genest and Caroline Tanguay share credits for the puppet designs, choreography + revival choreography. We read in our history books about periods in the history of opera when spectacle was key, for instance in those operas with a deus ex machina, or some sort of machinery and stage magic. But I think this –brace yourself for a bad joke—blows them all out of the water. I saw a very happy little child (perhaps three or four years old?) who had a whale of a time. The material is simple rather than pretentious, direct and uncomplicated.
I am back to a question I regularly get asked, “what’s a good first opera”? Try this one. You’ll have beautiful music and every moment is fascinating to watch and hear. It helps that instead of one big story, we’re in the presence of one medium-sized story plus a series of smaller ones.
Nightingale & other short fables runs until May 19th at the Four Seasons Centre. I’ll be seeing it again at least one more time, and I recommend it without reservation.