Review: The Nightingale and Other Fables (Canadian Opera Company)

Opera blends with puppetry in a breathtaking performance captivating Toronto audiences

The Nightingale and Other Fables (Canadian Opera Company) is a hauntingly beautiful production that innovatively weaves several short works by Igor Stravinsky into an integrated dramatic presentation. It is comprised of song cycles, short stories and instrumental pieces that are dramatized through puppetry, culminating in Stravinsky’s charming  opera The Nightingale. Crafted by celebrated Canadian stage director Robert Lepage, The Nightingale and Other Short Fables is rapidly becoming part of the 21st Century operatic canon internationally.

The most striking aspect of the set is that the orchestra pit is filled with water, transforming into a stream where much of the puppetry takes place. The orchestra is on the stage, with a panoramic screen behind them.

Puppetry is used to absolutely spectacular effect throughout the production and is a huge part of why this piece is such a delight for audiences. It is at least as much of a feast for the eyes as it is for the ears. The screen is a backdrop for projected hand shadow puppetry during the opening pieces, and the foredrop for full body shadow puppetry during other pieces.  A dazzling array of characters were brought to life by a team of black-leotard-clad puppeteers choreographed to function as a single body by Martin Genest (Puppet Choreographer) and Caroline Tanguay (Revival Puppet Choreographer).

The puppeteers took the shape of everything from foxes, to cats to bunnies, to people, to foxes eating chickens and each other. Certainly one of the most transfixing performances I have seen on stage.

Puppeteering for The Nightingale takes place in the flooded orchestra pit, with the puppeteers covertly manipulating beautiful, intricately painted wood carved puppets sailing in boats. The staging is in the “chinoiserie” tradition originally intended by Stravinsky and clearly grows out of 19th Century European fascination with a faux exotic “Orient”. While this was certainly challenging for my 21st Century sensibilities, there is no denying that is a fabulous premise for over-the-top costumes and puppets of unparalleled, elaborate beauty.

I must confess, I was so entranced by the feats of sophisticated puppet theatre that I took much less note of the music and singing than usual. I can say that the orchestra, conducted by Johannes Debus is sublime. The score breathes life in the stories unfolding on stage, which range from mundane, fantastical, grim and absurd. The orchestra wrung out all of the complexities of Stravinsky’s music. All of the pieces are from early in the composer’s career and filled with playfulness, adventure, and experimentation.

The vocal performances were stunning without exception. Danika Lorèn’s bright and rich soprano was captivating in her solo, “Two Poems of Konstantin Balmont”. Lorèn has a growing list of COC credits to her name and I look forward to seeing more of her.

COC favourite Jane Archibald made a glorious appearance as the nightingale. Her golden, soaring soprano could not be more perfect for the part of the bird with the breathtakingly beautiful voice.

Owen McCausland’s ethereal tenor solo as the fisherman with the poet’s heart is a haunting final passage for this piece that will linger in the listener’s ear for days.

One of the most memorable vocal performances was paired with a striking element of one of COC’s most outstanding sets. Mezzo-Soprano Lindsay Ammann sent chills down my spine as Death. Death’s physical manifestation was a blend of set piece and large scale puppet, truly a sight to behold.

The Nightingale and Other Fables is truly a total work of art and demonstrates the sheer genius of absolutely everyone involved. If you can  get tickets, please go see it while you can.


  • The Nightingale and Other Fables  is playing until May 19, 2018 at Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (145 Queen Street West)
  • Show times are 7:30 PM on May 1, 2, 10, & 15, with additional matinees at 2:00 PM on April 22 & May 13 and 4:30 PM on May 12 & 19.
  • Ticket prices range from $45 – $365. Patrons under 30 can purchase tickets for $22 or $35 here.
  • Tickets are available online, or through the box office at 416-363-8231 (long distance 1-800-250-4653).
  • Tickets can also be purchased on the TodayTix  app and website for theatre tickets.  Mooney on Theatre readers can get $15 off their first purchase at checkout with the code MOONEY.

Photo of Jane Archibald, Oleg Tsibulko, and Lindsay Ammann by Michael Cooper