Robert Lepage’s visually enticing production of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables has returned to the Four Seasons Centre for the first time since 2009, boasting a unique theatrical experience in its own right, and serving as a perfect foil for its spring counterpart of the Canadian Opera Company’s 2017/18 season, Anna Bolena.
Packed into two acts, The Nightingale is a collection of short works by Igor Stravinsky, all written between 1911-1919. The production is an ensemble piece in the truest sense of the word; singers, orchestra, designers and puppeteers are all equal players, and Lepage finds ingenious ways of letting the audience see both the story being told, and the moving parts in place to tell it.
The evening is full of novelty. The players of the orchestra are moved up onstage, and the orchestra pit is filled to the brim with water. Carl Fillion’s set extends over the pit, bringing a sense of excited claustrophobia to the first few rows of seats. We’re regaled with stories of rabbits, cats and foxes, all narrated by singers downstage while six acrobat/puppeteers play with light and bodies in brilliant puppet choreography by Martin Genest.
The first half, in which we hear every story except the titular fable of the Nightingale, is charged with the responsibility of introducing us to this production’s world. Our eyes and ears learn the delineation between narration and action, and our fascination is split between watching the puppets and the puppeteers themselves, their technique fully visible and a performance of its own.
The act’s piecemeal structure seems to warm into its pacing. Amid all the production’s creation of magic onstage, the shuffling of bodies and even the respectful applause between short numbers inevitably pulled me out of the storytelling. Yet by the time we heard the juicy, vaguely sexual story of The Fox, Lepage’s complex aesthetic feels fully established.
And just in time. In hindsight, everything before the Nightingale fable — which takes up the entirety of the second act — serves as preparation for the rich imagination in this story. Minds are open to marvel at the puppet fishermen and water dragons floating across the orchestra pit — some of the more memorable designs by Michael Curry — and we feel free to treat the puppeteers as organic extensions of their puppet characters. Our ears are ready for the sound of Jane Archibald, the COC’s first Artist-in-Residence who, after singing in this season’s Arabella and The Abduction from the Seraglio, lends her agile voice to the Nightingale itself.
There’s a neat paradox in The Nightingale and Other Short Fables. It’s a busy sight, a giant machine of intricate details that add up to something very rare to see in live theatre. And at its most essential, the production tells children’s stories with simple tools, like light and voices. In his director’s notes for Nightingale, Lepage writes of spotting a similar paradox in Stravinsky’s score, which sets fables for young people to complex music, his staging has a purity to it that comes from a clear goal to visualize that duality. “In a way,” Lepage writes, “I think it’s exactly how, each time, we should go to theatre: with the open mind of a child.”
The COC’s upcoming production of Anna Bolena, with star soprano Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role, is undoubtedly set to make a strong case for the power of the human voice. There is certainly impressive singing to hear in The Nightingale, but the production makes perhaps a broader statement, proving the power of live theatre. The design and choreography of the production are so arresting because they are done with simple tools, and no video or electronic element would be an improvement. Against an intimidating backdrop of sophisticated visual effects in film and television, it is important — and thrilling — to finding evidence of live theatre that is an irreplaceable genre of its own.
The Nightingale and Other Short Fables plays at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts until May 19