Back in 2008 or 2009 or so, the Canadian Opera Company put on a radically different performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “3 act” opera The Nightingale, buttressed by additional pieces in order to actually make the runtime somewhat comparable to a normal opera. (The Nightingale runs less than an hour.) I don’t know who initially curated the selections of pieces, but there was a lot more care put into the curation than often is for a similar bill at the symphony.
Anyway, the production was so unusual that it actually got put on in other cities and has now been revived in Toronto, where it originated.
This is an astounding production – with at least one potentially problematic aspect – that is unlike any other opera (or “classical” music) production I have ever seen. If you were ever looking for an entry point into the world of opera, this is it.
I’m going to talk about the specific pieces individually.
The selection opened with an instrumental piece, one of Stravinsky’s attempts to incorporate American music into his own. It’s not actually ragtime, or anything like it. Like so many European composers, Stravinsky just didn’t seem to get African American music at some fundamental level. But it’s still a compelling piece of music, if you can forget what it’s supposed to be, and I got to see my first ever live zither performance!
There was nothing but a small orchestra for this performance
The first piece with a vocal soloist is a brief set of four pieces. The surtitles translated the lyrics but it was hard to really understand much of the story, as these pieces seem to not translate well into other languages (which is would be a theme for the show, as I really felt like the stories were lost in translation.)
But this part is where the shadow puppetry started. I have seem shadow puppetry before but I have never seen it in this context, used to illustrate Russian poetry set to modernist music. It made the brevity of these pieces less perplexing and it also helped make the lyrics less confusing.
Though I enjoyed Stravinsky’s music – I generally like this kind of thing – the pieces were so brief that the only real interest is in performance. It’s hard to imagine going out of my way to listen to these pieces on their own.
Berceuses du chat (1915)
These pieces were originally written for clarinets and voice, but what we saw were horns instead. I’m not sure what caused the change in instrumentation.
Music like other short pieces in the performance, the surtitles made these feel a bit like non-sequiturs, rather than fully finished stories. I suspect some was lost in the translation but basically these are very brief vignetttes about cat beahviour, where the only element to each story is that cats behave like cats.
The music is engaging Stravinsky modernism but again the brevity of them makes it hard to care about that as stand-alone pieces. The performance was once again the highlight.
Two Poems of Konstantin Balmont (1911/1954)
Stravinsky didn’t create this arrangement of his piano and voice piece until 40 years later, but the arrangement does feel of a piece with the stuff he was writing in the teens.
Once again the poems were kind of hard to figure out for an English-speaker and we were left with the shadow puppets to understand what was happening in them. I once again found as though Russian poetry doesn’t necessarily translate into English very easily.
Very brief pieces with vibrant orchestration but as a stand-alone set it’s hard to care that much.
Four Russian Peasant Songs (1917)
The last set of short pieces had a big chorus. My understanding is the version I saw had been radically rearranged and I’m not sure whether it was Stravinsky who did it or someone else, as the original is supposedly for unaccompanied voice, whereas we saw a small orchestra and 8 women (I think).
I will say that, though once again the Russian lyrics didn’t translate well into English, Stravinsky’s setting of these songs was very far from what I imagine their original performances were like. This is one of those times where a composer seems to have taken the originals as just a jumping off point, something I like.
But once again, very brief.
Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet (1919)
One of the cool things about this particular performance was how the Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet was used as an interlude to try to give the whole program a unified feel. So a clarinet soloist would stand on stage in costume while the orchestra and vocalists moved around.
As music, these pieces are pretty typical of how European composers couldn’t quite figure out the brand new genre of jazz – and when I saw brand new, I mean basically invented around this time – but this is still lively, compelling music and I think I would rather listen to this than nearly every other European attempt from this era to “capture” jazz, as it’s fun. It also made a much bigger impression on me than just about any of the other music in the program to this point, save Ragtime.
The climax of the first half, featuring what was essentially “shadow ballet” (for lack of a better term), was this “burlesque” about a fox eating roosters.
Once again, the lyrics didn’t really translate all that well, as they didn’t always appear to match the action and there is a goat that appears to be a carnivore. (Is that a thing in Russia?) And the moral I thought they were setting up, well it didn’t really happen that way.
But the staging was once again unique and incredible, featuring ballet performers behind a screen, using limited costuming and their bodies to create the shapes of the fox, the roosters, the cat and the goat. I have never seen anything like it.
The vocals were all-male (a change from the earlier pieces, which were all-female) and ran the range of the spectrum. The music was typical of Stravinsky of this time; thumpy and vibrant and engaging. I’d certainly be more likely to listen to this on its own than the other vocal music that came before, even if I didn’t get the story.
The Nightingale (1914)
Prior to the intermission, the production had been escalating, from no performers, to shadow puppets and singers, to shadow ballet and singers. But for this opera, we were introduced to the giant tank of water in the orchestra pit, and what I can only describe as “water puppetry.”
How do I describe the staging? It was the most unique staging I’ve ever seen for any theatrical performance in my life, I think. That sounds like hyperbole, but it isn’t. I have legitimately seen nothing like it, and it substantially enlivened the Hans Christian Anderson tale, which appears to have dated rather horribly.
Lyrically once again I was a little lost. I don’t know the story but I found it to be a bit removed from the arc I was expecting it to follow, and I don’t know whether that’s due to the original story or the libretto. Anyway, it’s a story about hubris, but there wasn’t much drama to it. Literally everything great about the story came from the production.
The music is substantially more conservative for Stravinsky during this period than I ever would have guessed. I actually thought it was written decades later, due to how melodic it is, and how it lacks so much of his signature percussive force. As music, it had some really pretty parts but was maybe a little too conservative for my liking.
At this point I should mention the “Chinese face” and the “Japanese face.” The performers were made up to look like they were from China and Japan but were mostly (or entirely) not. Opera has been so far immune from charges of cultural appropriation but a staging like this raises them (and I’m surprised I hadn’t heard something about this yet, given that this staging is a decade old). The staging is inspired by various south east Asian theatre techniques, which rely heavily on makeup, so maybe that’s why this has gotten a pass before. I am on record as believing that everyone appropriates from other cultures for art, and that generally speaking this is not a bad thing, so I’m not going to comment further. Just know that you will see white people pretending to be Chinese and Japanese if you see this show.
If The Nightingale or these other pieces had fallen out of the repertoire before 2008, I can understand why. There’s not much plot here and much of the lyrics seem to have been lost in translation (or Russians just like less formal storytelling or something). But this performance is perhaps the most inventive stage production I’ve ever seen – or very close to it – and it makes these lyrics come alive in ways they would have never for me, with traditional performance techniques.
I like Stravinsky, and so would have enjoyed the music anyway, and just would have been slightly frustrated by who open-ended and brief these tales were, but the production is the reason to see this whenever you get the chance. It’s a path-breaking approach to staging opera that I have so many questions about:
- did anyone ever do anything like this before?
- if not, how the hell did they come up with it, especially that tank of water?
Anyway, really worth your time, though it closes on the 29th, I believe.