Photos – Andrew Beveridge

This show, devised by Robert Lepage in Canada fifteen years ago, forms the operatic centrepiece of the 2024 Adelaide Festival. It consists of a series of short pieces written by Stravinsky before, during, and just after World War I, woven together largely by theatrical process, and his short 3-act opera The Nightingale, of which the first act was composed in 1908 and the other two in 1913, just after completing The Rite of Spring.

The story of The Nightingale is familiar to us from Hans Christian Anderson’s tale. The song of the nightingale moves the Emperor of China to tears, and becomes his solace every night. One day he is given a mechanical nightingale whose advantage is that it can sing whenever the Emperor wants it to. But his soul shrivels up after the real nightingale leaves. On his deathbed the real nightingale reappears and its singing restores him to health. In my review of another show in the Adelaide festival, Guundara, I shall explore the consequences of the soullessness of mechanical music further.

Stravinsky’s style had altered considerably in the period between the composition of Act I and the other two acts. But although the gorgeous Debussyian textures of Act I give way to a more acerbic, epigrammatic musical idiom in Act II and III, what doesn’t change is the Mussorgskian method of construction, where the building blocks of the phrases are clearly visible and not subjected to “development”.

Robert Lepage has brought his ideas of theatre to bear on this very element of Stravinsky’s style, which is even more obvious in the smaller pieces that form the first part of the program. Believing that theatre originated in shadows cast by storytellers telling stories by firelight, the production includes five puppeteers who are also acrobats.

In the first part of the program these acrobats are fully visible, like Stravinsky’s musical building blocks, as, in Kristin McKinnon’s words, “They perform basic, yet impressive, finger puppetry in front of a single light source”. In The Fox (a work often known by its French title Reynard), “the shadow puppetry becomes increasingly elaborate. The acrobats move behind a screen, but there is still a focus on process awareness since the screen is elevated [45 centimetres] above the ground, revealing parts of the acrobats’ bodies as they manipulate themselves into a menagerie of creatures.”

Lepage believes that we should always approach theatre with the open-mindedness of children. This attitude could hardly be more appropriate than in the series of children’s fables that was the backbone of this program. The first half had all the spontaneous delight of children as we raced through the solo clarinet pieces (at last released from the strait-jacket of a concert performance, played in Russian costume by Dean Newcombe), Russian folksongs with accompaniment by a quartet of french horns, cats’ lullabies sung archly by the deep contralto of Meredith Arwady, and the crazy antics of The Fox. It was utterly delightful entertainment from start to finish.

For the entire program the orchestra, conducted with vibrant energy by Alejo Pérez, was on stage, and in the orchestra pit was a pond of water. The Nightingale opens with a fisherman. A boat emerged from the mist onto this water, and there was Owen McCausland singing divinely, manipulating the puppet character of the Fisherman on his boat while himself immersed in water. An unusual assignment for an opera singer. But then all the characters in The Nightingale were puppets, gorgeously clad in Orientalist versions of Chinese costumes, manipulated by the singers whose parts they represented, with the exception of the nightingale itself. This part was sung with limpid, magical clarity by Yulila Zasimova, and the puppet bird was manipulated by a puppeteer with a long, almost invisible rod, which allowed the puppet bird to fly.

The mention of orientalism reminds me that Lepage has copped a bit of flack over this aspect of his production. I would say, in his defence, that the most conspicuous display of orientalism, in the sense elaborated by Edward Said, in this piece is in the music itself, especially the pentatonic chinoiserie of the start of the second act. Everything about the staging, though it strongly referenced the China of the imperial period, did so with the candid respect of a child.

There were plenty of empty seats in the Festival Centre for this performance. This may have been because this show, magical as it is, may have been hard to sell. I would wager that very few in the audience had heard a note of The Nightingale, far less seen it staged – I certainly hadn't. But I would urge doubters to flock to the Festival centre for the remaining performances. It was wonderful to see in the faces of the audience after the show the sense of wonder, of having been disarmed by their experience of this production. If you haven’t seen it, do go – it will in a small and delightful way change your life.

Event details

2024 Adelaide Festival
The Nightingale and Other Fables
by Igor Stravinsky

Director Robert Lepage

Venue: Festival Theatre | Adelaide SA
Dates: 1 – 6 March 2024
Tickets: $329 – $69

With the State Opera South Australia Chorus and Adelaide Symphony Orchestra

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