Adelaide Festival

Adelaide Festival Review: The Nightingale and Other Fables

A stunning visual, aural and oral feast, Cirque de l’Opera

A stunning visual, aural and oral feast, Cirque de l’Opera

Presented by: Adelaide Festival: A co-production of Opéra national de Lyon, Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Canadian Opera Company and Dutch National Opera in collaboration with Ex Machina (Canada). Presented by Adelaide Festival and State Opera South Australia.

Reviewed: 1 March, 2024

By Igor Stravinsky. Directed by Robert Lepage. Conducted by Alejo Perez

Wow! Robert Lepage has put together, in this extraordinary night in the theatre music, all kinds of puppetry from shadow to  physical, and virtuosic vocals from a world-wide array of performers, a night that will live on in the hearts, minds and, dare I say it, souls of those who are fortunate enough to bear witness to it.  The way Lepage combines oral, aural and visual grabs your imagination and draws you into a childhood world of imagination and memory. We all played shadow puppets behind a sheet; we all imagined the way that vast array  of characters which inhabited our story time would look, and here we are at the mercy of Lepage’s vivid and whimsical look at how Stravinsky’s  music can inhabit the world of poetry and fairy tales and leave us  in a state of wonderment after two hours of sensory bombardment.

From the moment conductor Alejo Perez bounced onto the stage and danced – yes, danced, not conducted – Stravinsy’s Ragtime, written in 1918, we knew we were in for a special evening in the theatre. Stravinsky’s early style, evident in the composition, set the scene perfectly for our imaginations to get a kick start.  Dean Newcomb’s brilliant clarinet solos punctuated the first half; soulful, clear and perfectly pitched. 

Meredith Arwady’s  extraordinary contralto and presence added something very special to Pribaoutki and  Berceuses Du Chat and soprano Yuliya Pogrebnyak added delight and nuance to The Two Poems of Konstantin Balmont. The Four Russian peasant songs were brought to life with cool feet and elegant vocal flexibility by an ensemble of glorious female voices.

The string that tied this together was the puppetry. Puppetry and opera: what a great combination, and what a talented group of puppeteers. The finger puppetry that accompanied the first pieces was exquisite and whether you understood Russian or not you couldn’t miss the storytelling. Amazing, complex and vital work. 

Then, The Fox, the final piece of the first half, with the combined voices of four men telling the moralistic story of the fox who escapes his first encounter with death only to meet his end in a very unexpected way. These four male voices blend and soar through the story which is enacted with yet another virtuosic puppetry display, positively breathtaking work.

By interval, you think there is no way that this half can be eclipsed by anything more captivating. Hang on, the stage is cleared, the orchestra moved from the front to the back of the stage, a new setting as the stage is set for the second half of the show partially completed by men in wet-suits (you have to buy a ticket).

The second half is Stravinsky’s setting to music of Stepan Mitussov’s libretto  based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, The Emperor’s Nightingale. It is a tour de force of a performance from soloists, puppeteers and opera chorus working seamlessly together to produce an enigmatic and engaging telling of the story with puppets and humans working as one. There is no way to define how the exquisite puppetry and human performance combine, but there is a magic that happens that makes the outside world go away and the fantasy created by great storytelling begins. I was suspended in time and place by the exquisite world Lepage’s imagination has conjured up. Surprise after surprise means that you are taken from place to place in the story without ever knowing how you got there. Yuliia Zasimova’s Nightingale is a wonder of a virtuosic performance matched in skill and presence by Owen McCausland’s Fisherman, whose effortless tenor was exceptional. Taras Berezhansky’s Emperor was sonorous, effortless and authoritative.  Meredith Arwady’s portrayal of Death was unforgettable.  These performances were underpinned by the skill, both physically and vocally, by Yuliya Pogrebnyak’s Cook, Nabil Suliman’s Chamberlain, Jud Arthur’s Bonze.  Robert MacFarlane, Pelham Andrews and Norbert Hohl were stentorious Japanese Envoys and Catherine Campbell, Rosie Hosking, Elizabeth McCall, Rachel McCall, Bronwyn Palmer and Courtney Turner had some challenging work to do as the Spectres.

The opera chorus work under the careful eye of Anthony Hunt was, as always, world class. The expectation from a dedicated band of local opera performers sets a very high bar. It was cleared with panache and a great deal of physical dexterity.

The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra shone, rising to the task with what seemed like very little effort. Now, that’s style.

Special mention to the Acrobats/Puppeteers Martin Vaillancourt (Captain), Andréanne Joubert, Desmond Osborne, Vincent Poliquin-Simms, Andrea Ciacci and Noam Markus. These performers are the glue that stitches this extraordinary piece of work together.

Etienne Boucher’s lighting is beautiful, Marta Gottler costume, wig and make-up design exquisite, Carl Fillion’s set design is a performer’s and director’s dream to work on and in. There is a vast team of technical expertise behind this show which appears to be effortless, Now that takes talent.

In the programme notes Lepage refers to Stravinsky as a genius. All I can say is: Mr Lepage, it takes on to know one!

Reviewed by Adrian Barnes

Photo credit: Andrew Beveridge

Venue: Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
Season: Until 6 March, 2024
Duration: 2 hours 10 minutes (inc. Interval)
Tickets: From $329.00 (A reserve), From $199.00 (conc), Student from $90.00, Children from $140

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