Olga Peretyatko as the Nightingale and Ilya Bannik as the Emperor in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables (photo by Michael Cooper).
Since the opening of the Four Seasons Centre in 2006, Canadian Opera Company performances have consistently comprised one of Toronto’s hottest cultural tickets. Not yet one month into its 2009-2010 season, the company has already drawn raves for its near-classic remounting of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (on now to November 3), and now that the critics have had their say about the company’s latest production, opera is once again the talk of this town.
Based on a number of early works by Igor Stravinsky, The Nightingale and Other Short Fables is the brainchild of Quebec director Robert Lepage, a master of visual storytelling who employs diverse media to create immersive theatrical environments.
And if there’s one word that captures The Nightingale experience both literally and figuratively, “immersive” is it. A 45-minute musical drama comprising the second half of the program, it tells of a songbird who is courted by the emperor of China, only to be replaced by a mechanical doppelgänger. But this being a Lepage production, there’s much more to it than a simple story: the action takes place in the Four Seasons Centre’s orchestra pit, which has been filled with 67,000 litres of water as well as the opera’s primary cast—including a radiant Olga Peretyatko as the title character—who not only sing in the pool, but also articulate richly detailed Japanese- and Chinese-style puppets to, as the director notes, “pull the poetry out of the libretto and the poetic ideas out the music.”
While this multi-layered set-piece is undoubtedly the evening’s highlight, it is capably preceded by a selection of other brief Stravinsky works that are equally satisfying, both musically and as performance art. Notable among them are the jaunty Ragtime— a piece for small orchestra (conducted, in this case, with aplomb by the Vancouver Opera’s Jonathan Darlington) that offers jazz-like motifs with distinctly Eastern grace notes—and a trio of song-stories expertly brought to visual life by a troupe of shadow puppeteers. Stravinsky’s allegory The Fox also employs shadow performers to great effect.
Though only two performances into its run, The Nightingale and Other Fables has garnered such buzz that its remaining scheduled dates are now sold out. Fortunately an encore show has just been added for November 2, 7:30 p.m. Act quickly to purchase by visiting the Canadian Opera Company’s website or the Four Seasons Centre box office (145 Queen St. W.), or call 416-363-8231. Tickets range from $20 to $292.