Opera review: The Nightingale and Other Fables, Adelaide Festival Centre, Adelaide Festival

A stunningly inventive operatic reimagining makes its Australian debut in Adelaide. 

The Nightingale and Other Fables is opera, but not as you know it. There is an orchestra pit full of water, there are performers in wetsuits, there’s a versatile tree, there are acrobats and there are beautiful puppets. And then there’s the divine music and the brilliant singing. This is such a treat for opera lovers; it would also be a wonderful opportunity for new audiences to enjoy the power and possibility of opera.

This extraordinary staging of Igor Stravinsky’s first operatic work is so whimsical and inventive that it’s an absolute feast for the senses. Directed by Canadian Robert Lepage, who is also an accomplished actor and playwright, this is a co-production of Opéra National de Lyon, Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Canadian Opera Company and Dutch National Opera, in collaboration with Ex Machina (Canada). It was first staged in Toronto in 2009, and opera audiences around the world have since been enraptured by its charm and originality.

This Adelaide Festival production sees the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra on stage throughout (the pit having been repurposed as a lake), under the impressive direction of internationally acclaimed opera and ballet conductor Alejo Pérez. Curiously Pérez is also a collector of hourglasses.

The Nightingale and Other Fables is actually a collection of works. The short opera The Nightingale (Le Rossignol), written in parts between 1909 and 1914 with a libretto by Stepan Mitussov, is an operatic fairy tale based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen.

This fills the second half of the program and is just divine, with superb singing and delightful puppetry. Soprano Yuliia Zasimova brings the titular nightingale to life with warmth and feeling, and contralto Meredith Arwady revels in her role as “Death” complete with a larger-than-life mask reminiscent of Munch’s The Scream. This is a stylistically and technically complex work, but the singers and the orchestra perform it with mastery and precision. The composer apparently said The Nightingale was ‘devilish good fun to write’ and it is absolutely ‘devilish good fun’ to watch.

The production opens with a collection of Stravinsky’s pieces from 1911-1919, some of which are rarely heard in the concert hall. The ASO’s principal clarinet player Dean Newcomb shows his fine touch in the ‘Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet’. And ‘The Fox (Renard)’ was performed with a wonderful sense of humour by tenors Andrew Goodwin and Owen McCausland with bass Taras Berezhansky and baritone Nabil Suliman. Their fabulous Russian hats deserve a mention all of their own.

Indeed, everything about this production is worthy of a special mention. The puppets designed by Michael Curry; the set by Carl Fillion; the costumes, wigs, and make-up by Mara Gottler; lighting design by Etienne Boucher; and the wonderful ASO Chorus, with so many familiar faces for the local audience, under their hard-working chorus master Anthony Hunt.

The team of acrobats and puppeteers, under captain Martin Vaillancourt, were exceptionally good. The shadow puppets created with their hands of flowers, hares, a family of cats and even a sleeping baby, really were a joy. Perhaps, most importantly, everyone on stage appeared to embrace the piece with enthusiasm and their enjoyment only heightened our enjoyment. 

Read: Theatre review: The Lehman Trilogy, Theatre Royal, Sydney

The Adelaide Festival is rightly proud to have brought this work to Australia for the first time; indeed, this is exactly the scale of work that festivals are designed to showcase. It’s just a shame we had to wait 15 years for it to get here!

The Nightingale and Other Fables
Composer: Igor Stravinsky
Director: Robert Lepage
Assistant Director: Sybille Wilson
Conductor: Alejo Pérez
Set Designer Carl Fillion
Costume, Wig and Makeup Designer: Mara Gottler
Puppet Designer: Michael Curry
Lighting Designer: Etienne Boucher
Puppet Choreographer: Martin Genest

Cast: Yuliia Zasimova, Owen McCauslandTaras Berezhansky, Meredith Arwady, Yuliya Pogrebnyak, Nabil SulimanJud Arthur, Robert Macfarlane, Pelham Andrews, Norbert Hohl, Andrew Goodwin

Adelaide Symphony Orchestra
State Opera South Australia Chorus

Tickets: $60-$329

The Nightingale and Other Fables will be performed at Adelaide Festival until 6 March 2024.

Dr Diana Carroll is a writer, speaker, and reviewer based in Adelaide. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines including the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Woman's Day, and B&T. Writing about the arts is one of her great passions.