Opera returned to the stage of BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House Tuesday night with the Canadian Opera Company's production of "The Nightingale and other Fables": a collection of short songs and "lyrical tales" by Stravinsky. For most, the main draw was neither the singers nor the music, but the opera's director, Robert Lepage, who is currently in the midst of directing the Met's new Ring Cycle. (Die Walkure premieres next month.)
To be sure, "The Nightingale" is a much more modest affair than Lepage's other theatrical spectaculars (which include Cirque du Soleil and concert tours for Peter Gabriel.) In cobbling together these fables - basically children's stories with animals as the central characters - Lepage said that he hopes to lead us to theater "with the open mind of a child."
The vehicle through which Lepage gets us there is, of all things, puppetry. Which actually isn't as odd as it may seem: Lepage was inspired by the Met's production of Madama Butterfly (directed by Anthony Minghella) in which Cio-Cio San's son - a silent role - is portrayed by a puppet.
"Puppetry pulled the poetry out of the libretto," Lepage said, "and the poetic ideas out of the music in a way I hadn't seen before."
For this production, Lepage went so far as to hire Michael Curry, the puppeteer responsible for both Butterfly and the Broadway production of "The Lion King," to bring his conception to life. As such, there were shadow puppets of birds, cats and babies, tumbling acrobats behind a scrim, a nightingale on a wire.
The other device Lepage uses is water: namely, 12,000 gallons of it, turning the orchestra pit into a placid reflecting pool. In "The Nightingale", Lepage sent singers out into the water, some with intricate model boats and, yes, puppets. The effect was astonishingly beautiful, especially with a chorus standing behind in colorful Chinese robes.
Beyond all the stunning imagery, this was primarily a musical presentation, and COC director Johannes Debus led a crisp, engaging performance from an unusual vantage point at the rear of the stage. (He was able to give the singers direction via monitors positioned in the balcony.) Standouts among the cast were contralto Meredith Arwady, whom I last saw in John Adams' Doctor Atomic, and German tenor Lothar Odinius bass Ilya Bannik, who was simultaneously grandiose and fragile and in the role of the dying Emperor of China.
But, the real discovery here was Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko, making her New York debut as the title character. With her silvery tone and clear, strong projection, Peretyatko, 30, stood head-and-shoulders over the rest of the cast. This might be a stretch, but with her stunning voice and dark good looks, she just might just be the next Anna Netrebko.
"The Nightingale" returns to BAM tonight, with additional performances through Sunday; check with the box office or online for tickets.
More pics on Flickr.