The Nightingale and Other Fables

The Nightingale and Other Fables Adelaide Festival 2024Adelaide Festival. Festival Theatre. 1 Mar 2024


From the moment the performance of The Nightingale and Other Fables begins, it’s wonderment quickly engulfs you as you regress back to childhood when the distinction between fantasy and reality was vague. For the duration of the show, you are aware (just) as an audience member that your face is constantly smiling, and you are frequently and innocently uttering oohs and ahhhs. As internationally renowned Canadian playwright, actor, film director, and director Robert Lepage says in his program notes: “…each time, we should go to the theatre: with the open mind of a child”.


The Nightingale and Other Fables is the headline event of the 2024 Adelaide Festival, and it is truly remarkable. Please go if you can. It is a wondrous experience and celebration of exciting orchestral music composed by modernist Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), superb operatic singing by both international and Australian artists, and world class puppetry including shadow, hand, and marionette puppets in which puppeteers, who are also singers, can be seen working them.


The Nightingale and Other Fables is a co-production of Opera national de Lyon, Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Canadian Opera Company, and Dutch National Opera, in collaboration with Ex Machina, which is a multidisciplinary Canadian theatre company founded by Lepage himself. Ex Machina foregrounds the use of puppets in their various forms and their use is the perfect medium for bringing the stories told in The Nightingale and Other Fables to life.


The Nightingale and Other Fables is an all-Stravinsky extravaganza. It is a concatenation of Stravinsky’s short opera The Nightingale, which is performed after the interval, and other shorter works in the first half of the program. Both halves work very well together, and this ‘pairing’ was devised by Lepage for the 2009 Canadian Opera season. It is genius.


The first half of the evening is introduced by less well-known works by Stravinsky: some up-tempo jazz-inflected orchestral music and solo clarinet pieces, Russian folk songs, a song cycle about cats, and a performance of the small chamber opera-ballet The Fox. The clarinet is performed superbly by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s principal clarinet Dean Newcombe. The vocal selections are carefully chosen to allow stories to be told through puppetry to the largest extent possible, and to create a sense of the unusual. The puppeteers are in full view of the audience who are exposed to their artistry in all its glory. It is often humorous, sometimes melancholy, but always thrilling. It is also an enjoyable challenge to divide one’s attention between observing the process of the art of the puppeteers as it is to watch the actual outcome. (“What are they doing? How did they do that?”). In fact, one almost feels like a voyeur at times but always rapt by the performance!


The performance of the opera The Nightingale is however the showstopper. The full might of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (including expanded percussion section, two harps, celeste, and an infrequently seen cimbalom) is upstage with the State Opera Chorus in two files in front, and a smaller acting area. The choristers have been beautifully prepared by Chorus Master Anthony Hunt, and are superbly costumed, with costumes, wigs and makeup designed by Mara Gottler. To top it off, the orchestra pit has been transformed into a swimming pool in which small oriental boats are paddled and delightful exotic creatures frolic. Carl Fillion’s set design is a visual feast, and Etienne Boucher’s lighting design carefully and evocatively reveals all its fine detail.


The plot of The Nightingale is simple. Based on a tale by Hans Christian Andersen, a Chinese Emperor is introduced to the beautiful singing of a nightingale, and is deeply moved. However, the Japanese Emperor makes a gift of a mechanical nightingale and the real nightingale flies away in disgust. The Chinese emperor later falls deathly ill and desires for the return of the real bird, who agrees to do so if Death will spare the Emperor, which indeed happens, and … they all live happily ever after. All characters in the opera are ‘played’ by exquisitely made and costumed puppets, and expertly manipulated by their singer/operators. The puppets are designed by Michael Curry and choreographed by Martin Genest. It is mesmerizing. Of course, none of it happens without people singing and bringing the puppets to life. The principal singers are all excellent, and feature sopranos Yuliia Zasimova and Yuliya Pogrebnyak, tenors Owen McCausland, Robert Macfarlane and Norbert Hohl, basses Taras Berezhansky, Jud Arthur and pelham Andrews, contralto Meredith Arwady, and baritone Nabil Suliman. They are well supported by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and conductor Alejo Pérez.


It is too easy to flatter this production, but it merits every single praiseworthy word.


Kym Clayton


When: 1 to 6 Mar

Where: Festival Theatre