The three bureaucrats (lower left) confront the Nightingale as the chorus looks on.Photo from the COC production of The Nightingale © 2011 Canadian Opera Company.
The production, by French-Canadian director Robert Lepage, made use of Vietnamese water puppetry and the kind of exotic whimsy that infuses Mr. Lepage's productions for Cirque de Soleil. This one-act opera was performed in the water, with a specially-installed 12,000-gallon water tank replacing the orchestra pit of the BAM Opera House. Soloists and puppeteers performed the opera half-submerged, or on a pair of raised platforms above the stage. The musicians, led by Johannes Debus, occupied the stage itself, along with the chorus, clad in a rainbow of silk Chinese gongfu robes.
The singers moved slowly, breaking the surface tenson. They were shoulder-deep despite their elaborate costumes. Three Chinese bureaucrats, the Fisherman (the opera's narrator) and the Emperor himself were played by puppets, manipulated by the singers in identical costumes to their respective marionettes. Hooded, black-clad puppeteers worked in and out of the water, presenting present dragons, ducks, birds, and even the Emperor's floating throne. The Nightingale herself never touched the water.
For the second half of the work, set in the Chinese court, the massed chorus onstage opened their robes and displayed elaborate puppets of their own, portraying the rainbow of traditional costumes of the ancient Chinese court. Even the most elaborate Franco Zeffirelli mounting of Turandot had nothing on Mr. Lepage's staging, with its exotic puppets and spectacular costumes by Maria Gottler. At the climax of the opera, the full-sized Emperor became the central focus, confronting Death in the form of a lanky skeleton whose limbs formed the frame of his royal bed.
This novel approach to the work did not detract from Stravinsky's music, one of the composer's loveliest, most ethereal scores. The work was performed in Russian, by an idiomatic cast led by Olga Peretyatko in the title role. She sang the role of the Nightingale with a clear, lyric soprano, rising to bird-like heights and embodying the character through interpretative dance movements. She was well matched by the (mostly) male supporting cast, featuring baritones Lothar Odinius and Ilya Bannik as the Fisherman and the Emperor, respectively.
The evening opened with a slate of minor Stravinsky works, featuring the cast of the Nightingale taking turns as song interpreters, poets, and narrators. The short poems featured clever shadow hand puppets (making cats, rabbits, and even a baby rocking in a cradle), an idea enchanting in its simplicity and naïvete. These lesser Stravinsky works were like small satellites around The Nightingale. While they remain rarely heard, these songs and poems have charm. In this production, they formed a whimsical, vaudeville-style entertainment. The little works climaxed with a performance of The Fox, (Renard) a barnyard tale with elements of Aesop that featured an impressive shadow-ballet, played behind a blank screen.