The Associated Press distributed a glowing review, as did a theatre blogger for the New York Post. Here is the full text of New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini's excellent review from yesterday's paper:
Stravinsky’s Tales, Dunked in the Spin Cycle
The training regimens for aspiring opera singers typically include acting classes, movement workshops, dance lessons, sometimes even tips on fencing. But I wonder if the committed young singers who took part in the director Robert Lepage’s enchanting production of Stravinsky’s one-act opera “The Nightingale” on Tuesday night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music ever anticipated that one day they would be asked to perform demanding vocal parts, in Russian, while sloshing around in 12,000 gallons of water as they deftly manipulated puppet versions of the characters they were portraying.
At 50 minutes, this seldom-produced Stravinsky piece was the longest segment of “The Nightingale and Other Short Fables,” Mr. Lepage’s acclaimed staging of diverse Stravinsky dramatic works, choruses and songs, all involving stories about animals. The first half of the program employs nimble acrobats and the most affecting and intricate puppetry I have ever seen. This production, introduced at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto in 2009, is co-produced by the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Opéra National de Lyon and the Netherlands Opera (in collaboration with Ex Machina in Quebec). The Canadian Opera Company’s orchestra and chorus were vibrantly conducted by its accomplished young music director, Johannes Debus.
The centerpiece is “The Nightingale,” which Stravinsky called a “conte lyrique,” a lyrical tale, with a libretto by the composer and Stepan Mitussov adapted from the Hans Christian Andersen story. For its 1914 premiere at the Paris Opera, in a production by Diaghilev, the singers performed from the orchestra pit and actors mimed the characters onstage. Mr. Lepage’s production was inspired, he has said, by the 1,000-year-old art of Vietnamese water puppetry.
His ingenious collaborator here is Michael Curry, the production designer who created the puppets with the director Julie Taymor for “The Lion King” on Broadway and Mozart’s “Magic Flute” at the Metropolitan Opera. The scale of “The Nightingale,” however, is much smaller, which only makes the magic of the water puppetry more poignant.
By installing a rectangular pool in the academy’s orchestra pit, Mr. Lepage and his team have fashioned an inky lake, turned luminescent by the lighting of Etienne Boucher. There are platforms on either side of the pit. As the orchestra, placed toward the back of the stage, plays the wistful music that opens the work, we see a hand puppet of an old Chinese fisherman on his boat, returning at night from a long day of work. In between stroking the water with his oar, he stops to push back his hat and wipe his brow.
But guiding the boat, operating the puppet and singing the role is the tenor Lothar Odinius, in a colorful costume, one of a dazzling array designed by Mara Gottler. Being half-submerged did not seem to inhibit the beguiling singing of Mr. Odinius or any other cast member. The fisherman has come to a spot in the forest where every evening he is entranced by the singing of the nightingale.
Sure enough, the nightingale appears, here the sweet-voiced and technically agile Russian coloratura soprano Olga Peretyatko, dressed in a simple rustic outfit. A delicate, small nightingale puppet on a long pole is manipulated by an unseen puppeteer. The bird sometimes lands on Ms. Peretyatko’s hand, to be held aloft as the soprano sings Stravinsky’s elegiac, ornamented melodic flights.
Word of the nightingale’s singing has reached the emperor of China. For the palace scene an entire chorus of courtiers stands in rows before the orchestra, all brilliantly costumed. When they start to sing, they take out dazzlingly colorful puppet versions of themselves, and the effect is more splendid than the Imperial Palace scene in the Met’s popular production of Puccini’s “Turandot,” a Zeffirelli extravaganza.
The baritone Ilya Bannik is the sad-eyed emperor, burdened by his office, who is comforted by the alluring song of the nightingale. But when envoys from the emperor of Japan arrive with a bejeweled mechanical nightingale as a present, the real nightingale, now overlooked, returns to the forest.
In a gripping final scene, charged by Stravinsky’s piercing, ominous music, we see the despairing emperor dying. An aquatic roster of acrobats in wet suits transforms the emperor’s canopied bed into a skeleton with long bony limbs. The lake is covered by a shimmering midnight-blue sheet through which goblin-like creatures try to protrude and claim the emperor’s weakening body.
Six women of a chorus announce themselves as the emperor’s “misdeeds.” The figure of death (the excellent contralto Meredith Arwady) appears in the head of the skeleton to tell the emperor his time has come. But the forgiving nightingale returns, death is placated by the bird’s rapturous song, and the emperor is reprieved.
The first half of the program was equally amazing. Mr. Debus set the mood by conducting Stravinsky’s “Ragtime” for orchestra. The clarinetist Todd Palmer, dressed like a Cossack, played Stravinsky’s rhapsodic Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet as interludes between the dramatic works.
In “Pribaoutki,” four nonsense Russian rhymes for voice (Wallis Giunta) and chamber ensemble, and in “Four Russian Peasant Songs” for small female chorus and four horns, the costumed singers performed onstage while a troupe of puppeteers created intricate images of cats, old men, a woodcock, a partridge and even a fidgeting, crying baby.
The first half ended with “The Fox,” a moralizing burlesque for four male singers (Adam Luther, Peter Barrett, Mr. Bannik and Mr. Odinius) about a preening rooster boasting of his harem of hens, the sly fox that is out to eat him, and the ram and the cat who come to his aid. Here acrobats enact the tale behind a scrim, so that we see their bodies, decked with animal headdresses and tails, silhouetted in black. And the nuanced evocations of the animals were just as impressive as all the full body flips.
As Mr. Lepage continues to unveil his production of Wagner’s “Ring” at the Met, he is sure to win some new admirers with this Canadian Opera Company production. Whatever one thinks of his “Ring,” and opinion has been mixed, that he is an enormously gifted director cannot be denied.