The Nightingale and Other Short Fables
By Igor Stravinsky
Conducted by Johannes Debus
Directed by Robert Lepage
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, co-produced with Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Opera national de Lyon, and Netherlands Opera, in collaboration with Ex Machine, NYC
With Adam Luther, Lothar Odinius, Peter Barrett, Ilya Bannik, Olga Peretyatko, Laura Albino, Neil Craighead, Adrian Kramer, Meredith Arwady
Robert Lepage is an auteur with manifold creative gifts, and his attraction to eclectic performance traditions and vibrant, beguiling stagecraft is evidently what led him to assemble The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, a hodgepodge of brief Stravinsky pieces featuring animal protagonists. This compilation of whimsical ditties, arias, sketches, and a plaintive one-act opera with an Eastern motif may not be cohesive, but it is visually arresting, profusely inventive, and a marvel of puppetry design. The visual ingenuity, centered by a shimmering pool of water in the foreground, complements the playful, rhythmic, melodic, often dissonant, sometimes almost improvisational-seeming sound.
Compellingly, puppetry techniques evolve and become more sophisticated and elaborate as the evening progresses. Unadorned hand shadow puppetry, magnified by a lantern onto a screen, illustrates the introductory folktales, Pribaoutki, in which mischievous barnyard animals and drunken, dimwitted Russian villagers exemplify human folly. The shadow puppetry becomes more striking and elaborate for the following Berceuses du chat, four charming and beautiful nursery lullabies about cats and kittens in repose, scored by serene clarinet. Four Russian Peasant Songs feature a female serf chorus in rustic garb singing deceptively simplistic folk ditties with pastoral imagery and undertones of class inequality. The Fox is the most visually captivating composition of all, in which acrobatic dancers in stunning masks in silhouette enact a violent tale, in which a ram and a cat defend their friend, a vain and gullible rooster, from the machinations of a seductive, predatory fox. The two protectors strangle the fox in an outstanding fight sequence. This powerful episode, in which the friends celebrate their kill, is raucous, turbulent and downright unsettling. In contrast with the innocent and placid imagery of the lullabies, this cautionary fable is a chilling lesson in brutality.
The Nightingale, the gorgeous opera based on a Hans Christian Andersen story about a songbird invited to sing at the court of a Chinese emperor, features an astounding variety of ornately costumed, beautifully crafted Bunraku puppets. In a tranquil sequence, a miniature boat carrying a journeyman, and later a convoy of Chinese courtiers, takes the Nightingale (Olga Peretyatko) away from its sparkling unadulterated solitude in the forest. At court, a small-scale golden paradise complete with tiny swirling dragons, the Emperor (Ilya Bannik) is moved by the Nightingale’s mournful song but spurns it for a mechanical bird brought to him by a Japanese envoy. Later, when the dying Emperor is visited by a looming skeletal personification of death, he implores the Nightingale to forgive and to save him. Upon hearing the Nightingale’s song, death retreats. The Nightingale is a haunting piece, as generous and mysterious as a haiku. It clutches the emotions until the last ephemeral note lingers, then disappears.