"Still incredible": Robert Lepage's Nightingale Owen McCausland as the Fisherman in the Canadian Opera Company's production of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, 2018. Photo: Gaetz Photography.

"Still incredible": Robert Lepage's Nightingale

Greg Finney

Whenever you see the name Robert Lepage you can rest assured you are in for a visual treat. If you’ve been paying any attention to the theatre world at large you’ll know that Lepage is known for turning heads and making audiences sit up and take note - this production is no exception.

This time around Lepage uses collection of works by Igor Stravinsky compiled into The Nightingale and Other Fables. Lepage uses puppetry of all kinds on stage in tandem with the singers. I can hear you asking, “But Greggy, how?” For this production the orchestra has been moved onstage and the pit has been filled with water. It’s crazy, I know - and I don’t envy the crews having to fill and drain it every show - but it’s awesome. The water does two things: creates a dazzling array of reflective effects throughout the hall, but sound travels better over water than land (#science) so each note gets a little signal boost.

A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, 2018, photo: Michael Cooper.

The first half of the show was a presentation of three solo works for women, a women’s choral setting of four folk songs, and a male quartet all interspersed with some incredible clarinet solos.

The COC Orchestra started the show with a jazzy and spectacular rendition of Ragtime, which was developed from a scene out of Stravnisky’s L’histoire du soldat. Followed by solos from three incredible singers the first was Allyson McHardy who sang Pribaoutki. McHardy’s agile mezzo careened through these folksy tune with ease and an abundance of character. Lindsay Ammann brought us a delightful Berceuse du chat. Fun and frolicky tunes about various types of Russian cats, Amman’s voice married beautifully with the COC Orchestra. Two Poems by Konstantin Balmont describing a forget-me-not in bloom and a dove flying to a rose, Danika Lorén reminds us why she’s a star on the rise. The ladies of the COC Chorus brought us Four Russian Peasant Songs. A choral setting called Podblydunye which means “in the presence of the dish” these are inspired by the holiday tradition of fortune telling in Russia. In clear precise balance, and lovely counterpoint, the women of the COC Chorus brought a warmth and beauty to the enticingly complex harmonies.

A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, 2018, photo: Michael Cooper.

Closing out the first half of the show was the fable of The Fox, sung by a quartet of men (tenors Miles Mykkanen and Owen McCausland and baritones Bruno Roy and Oleg Tsibulko). It tells the story of a fox trying to trick a rooster into becoming his victim, only to meet his end at the hands of the Rooster and his friends the Goat and the Cat. Mykkanen sang with a brilliant ring that soared through the hall while McCausland’s tone was a touch more delicate. When paired together their sound was glorious. Roy brought his characteristic charm and brassy tone in full swing which helped add a lightness to a rather dark tale. Singing some tricky stuff, including some incredibly low passages Tsibulko sang beautifully, even if there were balance issues with the Orchestra onstage behind him. The shadow play presented for this fable was incredible. Using various cut-out silhouettes and impressive feats of acrobatics, the “puppeteers” danced through the intricate choreography seamlessly. In a neat play on negative space (I won’t spoil the effect) the climax was particularly appealing.

(l-r) Jane Archibald as the Nightingale, Oleg Tsibulko as the Emperor (centre) and Lindsay Ammann as Death in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, 2018, photo: Michael Cooper.

The Nightingale is a fable set in China involving a nightingale, a cook, an Emperor and some bad choices. There’s an invitation for the nightingale to sing at court, but she refuses saying her song is best heard in the forest. Meanwhile, a Japanese envoy brings a gift of a mechanical nightingale and Mr. Jealous-Emperor bans real-live nightingale, only to be saved by her when she intervenes as Death shows up to collect the Emperor’s soul. #CliffsNotes

As the title character, you couldn’t find a better voice than Jane Archibald. Although I found it tough to catch some of the diction (I just chalk that up to my unfamiliarity with Russian) her tone was resplendent. She sparkled and twinkled with great agility through the birdsong passages. As the Fisherman who comes to hear the Nightingale every night, McCausland showed great prowess at manipulating the fisherpuppet, singing while submerged to the waist in water. His delicate yet somewhat reedy tone sounded fantastic. As the Cook who becomes the Emperor’s Private Chef, COC Ensemble Studio member Lauren Eberwein sang powerfully and intelligently. I’m a huge fan of Eberwein’s, and it’s great to see her crossing the boards at the COC so often. Amman returned, this time around as Death, bringing her incredible instrument in its full array. The supporting cast all sang well, although there were balance issues with the orchestra that were most prevalent in the small ensemble singing.

(l-r) Michael Uloth as the Bonze, Anatoli Sivko as the Chamberlain, Lauren Eberwein as the Cook and Jane Archibald as the Nightingale in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, 2018, photo: Michael Cooper.

The COC orchestra under Johannes Debus played the Stravinsky exquisitely. Debus married well the quirky, effervescent quality of Stravinsky’s orchestrations with the weight of the size of the orchestra (at times it was huge - e.g. The Nightingale used two full concert harps). I did find some balance issues which are to be expected when the orchestra is brought onto the stage from their “den of security and artistry” - in particular with the lower male voices. We rarely hear these notes called for in a soloist (usually only when doing Russian works). They were there but under cover of orchestra (which is now being amplified by the pool of water) - the same happened to some of the ladies while singing in their dreaded “middle range”.

The Nightingale and Other Short Fables was the first production I saw at the COC after I moved to Toronto and really began to focus on opera. I found this incarnation held up to the original musically - the singing really is truly fantastic - but I did find it lacked a bit of the “verve” of the original mounting. The show is still incredible. The performances by the soloists, the orchestra, the puppeteers, and the chorus were all top-notch and you would do well to check out one of its last few performances. You can grab tickets here.

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