Lepage's watery, magical "Nightingale"

MIKE SILVERMAN - For The Associated Press
March 2, 2011
This photo provided by the Brooklyn Academy of Music shows Russian bass Ilya Bannik in the role of The Emperor is presented with the mechanical bird from Japan during the final dress rehearsal of "The Nightingale" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House Feb. 28, 2011, in New York. (AP Photo/Brooklyn Academy of Music, Jack Vartoogian)
View photos
This photo provided by the Brooklyn Academy of Music shows Russian bass Ilya Bannik in the role of The Emperor is presented with the mechanical bird from Japan during the final dress rehearsal of "The Nightingale" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House Feb. 28, 2011, in New York.

Clouds of mist rise gently from a wading pool where the orchestra pit should be, as the musicians — banished to the stage — play the opening strains of Stravinsky's "The Nightingale."

A sampan glides slowly across the aquatic surface. A tenor moves through waist-deep water, manipulating a puppet that stands in the boat. The branches of a tree swing out over the pool, and the Nightingale alights.

So begins Robert Lepage's magical staging of this brief opera, adapted from the Hans Christian Andersen story of a bird that saves the life of the Emperor with a song so enchanting it charms even Death.

Originally presented by the Canadian Opera Company in 2009, "The Nightingale and Other Short Fables" opened Tuesday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. There are just four performances, through Sunday afternoon.

In Lepage's rendering, there are puppets everywhere — floating in the 12,000-gallon water tank, perched on the tree, even held by members of the chorus, who stand in front of the orchestra dressed in ornate Chinese robes. The most striking visual effect is the appearance of Death, who rises from beneath the stage as a grotesquely oversize skeleton with arms that reach out to surround the Emperor as he lies dying in bed.

Lepage, whose machine-driven production of Wagner's "Ring" cycle is still taking shape at the Metropolitan Opera, has packed this "Nightingale" with so many visual delights that it would be entertaining even with less than outstanding singers.

But the cast assembled here is terrific. As the Nightingale, soprano Olga Peretyatko has a fresh, silvery sound that never turns shrill, and she easily negotiates the tricky coloratura flights Stravinsky has given his heroine. Tenor Lothar Odinius is a warm, sympathetic presence as the Fisherman; bass Ilya Bannik makes a pitiable Emperor; and mezzo-soprano Meredith Arwady is commanding as Death.

The COC orchestra, conducted by Johannes Debus, brings out the delicacy and haunting lyricism in this charming work, which was first performed in 1914. It is flecked with Oriental-sounding harmonies, some of which Puccini appears to have borrowed when he composed his final opera, "Turandot," a few years later.

Although divided into three acts, "The Nightingale" runs only about 45 minutes. To fill out the evening, Lepage opens the program with a potpourri of shorter Stravinsky works — including pieces for solo clarinet — Russian peasant songs and a song cycle about a cat (sung by Arwady with imposing low notes). Talented performers project hand shadow puppets onto a screen at the rear of the stage, depicting the animals mentioned in the songs.

The first half ends with "The Fox," a "farmyard burlesque" sung by a spirited male quartet and enacted by acrobat-puppeteers mostly hidden behind a translucent sheet.