Adelaide Festival Review: The Nightingale and Other Fables

FIFTY+SA Arts Reviewer, David Jobling, reviews Igor Stravinsky's The Nightingale And Other Fables directed by Robert Lepage, and presented by Adelaide Festival and State Opera South Australia.

The first act of The Nightingale And Other Fables opens with Igor Stravinsky’s “Ragtime”, a reasonably short piece of music that reflects the composer’s great love of the ragtime style that preceded jazz. Adelaide Symphony Orchestra musicians conducted by Maestro Alejo Perez set the scene delivering this fun and beautiful music. I’ve always found Stravinsky’s work echoed in the Star Wars music written by John Williams, particularly the original film A New Hope – for example the obvious strains of jazzy ragtime in the famous alien bar scene where Han Solo is first introduced.

Special mention here to Dean Newcomb who plays clarinet solos between scene changes, giving singers and puppeteers time to assemble on stage for the collection of ‘other fables’ which make up the first act.

Two Poems of Konstantin Balmont, Four Russian Peasant Songs and The Fox, are boldly delivered with music and voices illustrated first with shadow puppet characters created by hands casting shadows onto a large screen suspended over the orchestra in full view of the audience and later by the full acrobatic bodies of the masked puppeteers back lit from behind the same large screen. This portion of the program was thoroughly entertaining. The blend of the music, song and imagery was inventive, fun and highly accessible for all.

This is an unusual co-production between Canadian Opera Company, Opéra National de Lyon, Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, and Dutch National Opera, with Ex Machina (Canada) plus the State Opera South Australia chorus and Adelaide Symphony Orchestra providing the live music in this version with conductor Alejo Pérez on the podium.

As a production it has a great deal of prestige combining many talents from around the world.

Unfortunately I wasn’t completely engaged by the second half of the production, the main event The Nightingale possibly because my seat was in the C Reserve Grand Circle section and basically I couldn’t see most of the puppet action in the second half without leaning a long way forward out of my seat.

The people in front of me obviously had the same trouble seeing, so they leaned forward, which obscured my limited view even more, forcing me to either lean further forward obscuring the view of the people behind me or simply give up on the visuals and listening to the music, which was very disappointing.

Obviously the production isn’t cheap to mount, the tickets are not inexpensive, my cheap seat was $149 and taking into account there are translations of the Russian lyrics projected on a sur-title screen above the action on stage, I found it astonishing that there were no CCTV monitors used to provide everyone with a clear view of the tiny rod puppets used in main event. In this day and age it seems to be a ridiculous oversight on behalf of the producers to leave a large portion of the audience struggling to see any action.

I can hear the opera purists decry “It’s not a rock concert!” to which I would reply, “At a dollar shy of a hundred and fifty dollars I think it would be fair to be able to see without lifting myself out of the seat,” otherwise I’m not really getting the full effect.

The music and singing was beautiful, brilliant, stupendously delivered, but the only puppet I could comfortably see (almost most of) was the large skeleton depicting death, and occasionally I caught glimpses of the actual nightingale.

When I lifted myself out of my chair I could see a variety of tiny rod puppets being used by the singers, who were clad in wetsuits delivering the story from a large pond of water downstage (in the orchestra pit) so I imagine it looked rather brilliant from the Dress Circle and the Stalls.

This made the second half of the show anything but enjoyable so it was lucky the first half was as entertaining and visible as it had been.

When so much effort and creativity has been employed to create something as rare and beautiful as this, you’d think someone on the team would take the time to ensure everyone can see what’s going on, but alas with this production the ‘cheap seats’ didn’t deliver.

Looking around the audience what I could see in the Grand Circle, was a lot of other people who were lurching forward the same way I needed to. Technology may not be everyone’s friend in the high arts but I think a more egalitarian approach on behalf of the producers would help rather than hinder their product delivery.

Image credit: Andrew Beveridge

The Nightingale and Other Fables

Season has closed

Adelaide Festival Centre, Adelaide


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