A more endearing and thoroughly original centrepiece for the Adelaide Festival would be hard to imagine. Just as Stravinsky himself constantly broke the mould, Canadian director Robert Lepage’s The Nightingale and Other Fables takes a different turn and is all done through puppetry. The miniature world it creates perfectly suits the tales within this music – of how goodness prevails over greed and other human vices.

At times, the cleverness is beyond belief. It took five international production teams to put this opera together, and the result is special to witness.

The first thing to note is that, as the title suggests, there is not one work here but a clutch of works by Stravinsky. The three-act opera The Nightingale occupies the second half, but such is its compactness that it leaves room for six other pieces for the first half. Among these, a farmyard burlesque called The Fox is a real highlight, but just as delightful are Two Poems of Konstantin Balmont, Four Russian Peasant Songs, and the very amusing Berceuses du chat.

All are rarely heard works, which alone makes Lepage’s show a genuine enticement for Stravinsky fans.

We’re in particularly safe hands musically. Alejo Pérez conducts without artifice and presents Stravinsky’s music in all its honesty. Argentinian by birth and serving at the Flemish Opera since 2019, Pérez is a breath of fresh air in the way he approaches the composer’s early works. Avoiding artifice, he conducts with pure naturalness and grace. An enthused, spirited Adelaide Symphony Orchestra follow with their usual high degree of accomplishment.

Woven into the first half are Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet, which Dean Newcomb plays outstandingly. He takes on a sort of Pied Piper role in these, acting through his instrument to entrance the audience.

The singing is one of the main boasts of this production, and the cast measures up as strongly as one would hope. Hailing from Ukraine, Belgium, North America and Australia, each singer is superb. One of the finest contraltos in the world today, Meredith Arwady, is mighty of voice and unsurpassed in her diction. Also fabulous are Yuliia Zasimova in the title role in Nightingale, Taras Berezhansky as the Emperor, the tenor Owen McCausland and baritone Nabil Suliman.

Through silhouettes, puppeteers bring the animals to life in The Fox. Photo: Andrew Beveridge

The Nightingale and Other Fables are simple stories that contain ageless moral truths; and the way Lepage relates them, through puppetry, brims with inventive wit and humour. Indeed, we are treated to a virtuosic display of almost everything that is possible in puppetry.

Wonderful shadow puppetry accompanies the songs, and part of the fun is to see the six puppeteers intricately moving their hands and fingers as they project images of birds, rabbits and ducks behind the orchestra. Their work is as charming as it is sophisticated.

The cleverness ramps up with each successive work. In The Fox, we see silhouettes of the puppeteers’ bodies as they don animal masks and writhe around to depict farmyard animals fending off the predatory fox.

All stops are pulled out in The Nightingale. Up to their necks in water as they descend into an impressively-sized rectangular pool installed on stage, the brave puppeteers manipulate boats, dragons, water buffalo, more ducks, plus a comical frog.

Characters in The Nightingale are played by rod puppets operated by the singers. Photo: Andrew Beveridge

A tiny nightingale, meanwhile, flutters about on the end of a long pole, vulnerable at first but steadily gaining in confidence as the dying Emperor, reduced to a giant sprawling skeleton, laments over the error of his ways.

Other characters in Nightingale are played by beautiful handmade rod puppets that are operated by the singers. Much like Indonesian wayang golek puppetry, these are truly exquisite.

Occasionally, technical complexity gets a little carried away with itself and clutters up the narrative. Timing issues also occur in places due to the singers unavoidably having no eye contact with the conductor. But brilliance abounds in this production. The costumes, lighting and choruses are all extremely well done, too.

The Nightingale and Other Fables 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). Presented by Adelaide Festival and State Opera South Australia, it runs until March 6 at Festival Theatre.

Read more 2024 Adelaide Festival coverage here.


The Nightingale and Other Fables is playing until March 6 as part of the 2024 Adelaide Festival. Photo: Andrew Beveridge

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