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Review: The Nightingale and Other Fables at Adelaide Festival Theatre

Review by Kate Gaul

Adelaide Festival presents an opera by Igor Stravinsky and directed by Robert Lepage for this year’s Adelaide Festival. There has been quite a bit of controversy surrounding the programming of this twelve-year-old production. The Festival Artistic Director writes in the programme that she selected the show because she “loved it for its beauty, joy, magic and … musicality”. For many, it has evoked only anger, frustration, and boredom. Bad sightlines, high ticket prices being the key issue. There have also been criticisms around the Orientalism of the work. The story presents problematic tropes, exemplifying a fascinating but backwards Asia with an incompetent emperor where Asian women are fetishized as docile and obedient. Arts Hub presented a comprehensive essay here.

The production begins with showing the influence of jazz on the composer, with “Ragtime” (1918). Conductor, Alejo Pérez, leads eleven members of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, including a cimbalom, played by Joshua Webster, through this rhythmically difficult piece, acting as an overture. “The Nightingale” is a short opera in three acts by Igor Stravinsky to a Russian-language libretto by him and Stepan Mitusov, based on a tale by Hans Christian Andersen: set in ancient times, a nasty Chinese Emperor is reduced to tears and made kind by a small grey bird. It was completed on 28 March 1914 and premiered a few weeks later. This performance, first produced in 2009, 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 (Canada). The “other fables” of the title are in fact a collection of Stravinsky’s pieces from 1911-1919. In the first act there are six pieces with ASO’s principal clarinet player Dean Newcomb performing ‘Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet’ in between the stories. Memorably, ‘The Fox’ is performed with a wonderful sense of humour by tenors Andrew Goodwin and Owen McCausland with bass Taras Berezhansky and baritone Nabil Suliman. It’s all very deceptively small scale for an opera until Act 2. Interval, and the stage is cleared. The orchestra is moved to the back of the stage. The orchestra pit becomes a pool of water and becomes a lake downstage, boats, dragons, water buffalo, more ducks, plus a comical frog.

The music is superb, and the international cast are spectacular along with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.  The opening stories unfurl through exquisite and acrobatic shadow play and Taiwanese hand puppets, before moving on to the ancient art of Vietnamese water puppetry for the spectacular telling of “The Nightingale”. The puppetry ties the tales across the evening together. Cast in wet suits, puppeteers, chorus, and soloists create a stunning imaginative world in the way the best of opera can. The miniature world of the puppets (designed by the renowned Michael Curry) emphasises the microcosm that theatre often becomes. You may have seen Curry’s designs in everything from “Lion King”, “Frozen Broadway”, a Katy Perry video or a Cirque de Soleil show.  It’s a treat to see this production for his work alone. Everyone loves puppets, right? If you love Stravinsky, can get a seat in the stalls, front on to the stage and can put cultural critique aside then this may be the show for you.  It is beautiful and crafty but one can’t help feel that time has moved on.

Image Supplied


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