La Scena Musicale

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Lipsynch in Montreal - the revival of theatrical magic

Robert Lepage's acclaimed Ex Machina production runs until March 14 

By Crystal Chan 

Lipsynch is to theatre what Avatar is to cinema. It's a shocking parallel, but here's the reason: Avatar has reinvigorated the magic of the epic movie event; this is what viewers felt like when Star Wars or The Wizard of Oz were first released, the critics keep saying. Lipsynch is an 8 1/2 hour play filled with magic: it innovates within the theatrical medium like those films did within the blockbuster movie genre.  

This is the power of theatre people felt watching the first Hamlet, I thought: to sit still in one's seat and learn, overhear, and travel, all the while dazzled by an artistry of sight, sound and spectacle you had never experienced before. Watching Lipsynch felt like a new theatrical experience offstage, too; it was a theatre event. With four 20-minute intermissions and one 45-minute meal break (there is also an option of watching the play in three hour blocks over three evenings), there were avid discussions on the staging and the production.

Lipsynch spans three continents and seven decades. It features four languages (with French subtitles when necessary), exploring the theme of the human voice through nine main characters whose lives connect like a game of dominoes. These include an opera singer, prostitute-turned-housecleaner, filmmaker, neurosurgeon, and Scotland Yard detective. Nine actors put on a bravado performance as the nine characters as well as a host of others that appear in the other's worlds. Although some characters' 'chapters' are more tangentially connected to the central story, the nine hours do not lag often (I've watched films that seemed longer) as they have been nicely rearranged since the show's 2008 premiere in London, when such problems were noted. A central mystery also keeps the momentum going. In true Lepage style it involves a case of unknown parenthood - the play begins with an unknown teenager who dies with her baby in her arms on a transcontinental flight. The baby is adopted by another central character and the parentage and background of the child is slowly revealed throughout the production. Humour also keeps the play from dragging; humour is even built into the constant but fairly fluid costume and scene changes. There is even bawdy humour, something unexpected from such a production; then there is humour such as the Hamlet soliloquy presented with a bagel instead of a skull.

Lepage's forays into cinema and opera have clearly affected the text, which was co-written by Lepage and all the actors. The mise-en-scène is very cinematic, constantly framed through boxes and screens and mediated through sound and video recordings. One such use of a camera onstage even makes something otherwise impossible in theatre possible: the 'shot - counter shot' in cinema which enables two characters to face each other completely while the audience can still see the face of each straight on. Opera has influenced both the music and construction of the play, which works on a leitmotif-laden, mythic structure akin to a Wagner opera.

While exploring voice through singing, accents and languages, psychological disorders, sound recording, film dubbing, and much more, Lepage and Ex Machina has stayed true to the metaphorical voice which one character in the play, a documentary filmmaker, espouses: "the job of the artist," she says, "is to give a voice to others." 
Lipsynch gives voices to a host of characters and conditions, crossing classes and countries with ease.


To read La SCENA's September 2009 interview with Robert Lepage and short review of Lipsynch's Toronto production, visit

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Lepage's Nightingale and Other Short Fables a Feast

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

I never sat so straight at an opera as I did at the Canadian Opera Company’s production of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables Tuesday night.

Only once 16 years ago, when I chanced on COC’s Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung at the then O’Keefe Centre and came out feeling like I had just seen something so cool that I was therefore cool from having seen it.

It’s no surprise then that the mastermind behind that still-talked-about double bill in Toronto is the very same one responsible for my straight back throughout the two-hour program at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts — Canadian director Robert Lepage.

Lepage’s new and second production for the COC is a collage of Igor Stravinsky’s two short operas —The Nightingale and The Fox — and other vocal and instrumental pieces, including RagtimePribaoutki, and three pieces for solo clarinet, played beautifully by Ross Edwards.

Yes, there was the much-publicized swimming pool (67,000 litres of water in the orchestra pit), in which singers stood and sang in The Nightingale, a three-act 45-minute fairy-tale opera set in ancient China.
The orchestra played on stage.

Different as the reversed arrangement may seem, when the opera premiered in Paris in 1914, singers were also placed in the pit by Sergei Diaghilev, who commissioned Stravinsky some of his best-known works — The FirebirdPetrushka, and The Rite of Spring.

Aside from the water, there were puppets, 75 in total, including eight Japanese Bunraku puppets and 37 Taiwanese and Chinese puppets.

Again, the puppets alone are not that different. Lepage said he saw puppetry used in an opera several years ago, and last year, in Anthony Mighella’s staging of Madama Butterly for the Metropolitan Opera, a Bunraku-style puppet actually took a child’s place to play Cio-Cio-San’s son.

What made Lepage’s production so mind-boggling is the way he pulls various elements together and layers them in seamlessly with the orchestration, the singing, and the drama.

Russian lyric soprano Olga Peretyatko, who launched her career in 2007 after placing second at Placido Domingo’s Operalia singing competition, was a seductive and charming nightingale, her night calls clear as a whistle.

One of the most spellbinding moment for me was the opening of The Nightingale, when German tenor Lothar Odinius as the fisherman, whose supple voice moved the story along, walked out in waist-deep water with a boat and a puppet, the orchestra's humming murmur under Jonathan Darlington's baton floating amidst the fog.

Even if I knew nothing about Stravinsky, or opera, or classical music, it was an arresting scene I would have paused and pressed replay if I could.

With lavish costumes for the singers and their puppets, Lepage's Nightingale is a feast to the human eye. There was so much to see, the only downside was deciding where to focus your gaze on.

The first half of the program, consisting of Stravinsky's short works, was presented continuously with intriguing and complex hand shadow and full-body acrobatic shadow puppetry on a scrim.

Quite frankly, I found the puppetry so fascinating I barely had time to look at the singers, who were propped up on either side of the swimming pool.

The Nightingale and Other Short Fables is by far the most visually imaginative creation I have ever seen in a musical performance. It was like watching Cirque du Soleil at the opera without the high jumps.

The music and the singing were fantastic, but opera has never looked so cool and I have definitely never been cooler.

The Nightingale and Other Short Fables continues at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Tickets for the remaining shows are sold out. However, the COC has added an extra performance on Monday, Nov. 2 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available online at, by calling 416-363-8231, or in person at the Four Seasons Centre Box Office (145 Queen St. W., Toronto).

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

This Week in Toronto (October 19 - 25)

Franz Welser-Most conducts the Cleveland Orchestra (Photo courtesy of Roy Thomson Hall)

Stravinsky's The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, directed by Robert Lepage (photo: Michael Cooper)

For opera fans, the big news this week continues to be the COC production of Stravinsky's The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, directed by Robert Lepage. It opened on Saturday and it was a complete triumph. It was what an operatic experience should be but rarely is - one that dazzles, surprises, delights and inspires, all at the same time. Lepage turned operatic conventions upside down with a myriad of novel ideas regarding presentations, incorporating elements previously untouched and unrealized in the western opera. If you were struck by his Damnation of Faust at the Met last season, he has outdone himself here. The singing was uniformly excellent, particularly the clear, bell-like tones of Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko, whom I heard last year in Valencia, Spain, in the recording sessions I covered of Frederic Chaslin's new opera Wuthering Heights. She impressed me then, but she is even better here - this high coloratura role is tailor-made for her. As the Canadian reviewer for Opera, a UK magazine, I will write a full review there to be published in a future issue. As I understand it, all the tickets are pretty much sold, but there may be returns, so do check the COC website for updates. Performances this week are on Oct. 20, 22, and 24 at the Four Seasons Centre. The other show, Puccini's Madama Butterfly, continues on Oct. 21, 23, and 25. I have seen it twice already, and I am told that in recent performances, the audience have been extremely enthusiastic.

More operas are on offer this week. This being the Haydn bicentenary, University of Toronto Opera Division is presenting his Il Mondo della Luna, in a one-hour excerpt format, at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at the Four Seasons Centre at noon, Tuesday 20. The U of T publicity material also cites that this is the International Year of Astronomy - so it is a double celebration! It features students of the Faculty of Music, so this is a good chance to hear up and coming voices. This is a sneak preview to the fully staged production to take place on November 5-8 at the MacMillan Theatre at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto. The COC noon hour performance is free, but as usual, you will need to arrive at least 30 minutes before to line up.

Opera in Concert will be presenting another rarity, Rossini's La Donna del Lago, one of his relatively rare forays into opera seria. It is based on the Sir Walter Scott poem and the "lady" is a real star vehicle for a prima donna who has the chops to do the florid music justice. I have never seen it fully staged, and the OIC version obviously won't be staged either. It does have a very fine soprano in Virginia Hatfield, who has developed by leaps and bounds since her COC Ensemble Days. The show is on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2:30 PM at the Jane Mallet Theatre of the St. Lawrence Centre.

Symphonically speaking, the big event this week is the appearance of the august Cleveland Orchestra on Tuesday Oct. 20 8 pm in Roy Thomson Hall. The conductor is its current music director Franz Welser-Most. On the program is Fetes, a Debussy opener, followed by Haydn Symphony No. 85 and Shostakovich Symphony No. 5. Welser-Most exudes youthful vigor combined with a well-tempered, mature style. He is a bit of a controversial figure in Cleveland, where he is adored by the public but disliked by one particular critic who was subsequently released from his long-held position at the local newspaper. You'll get to see and hear what all the fuss is about on Tuesday. Any visiting orchestra is an event and this one is not to be missed.

Finally, the equally august Toronto Mendelssohn Choir presents Handel's Israel in Egypt at the newly minted Koerner Hall, with soloists Suzie LeBlanc and James McLennan. Noel Edison leads the Festival Orchestra. I attended the Frederica von Stade Farewell there last week and can truly say this new hall is a magnificent venue, not just for its beauty but its wondrous acoustics. If you haven't been to a concert there, this would be a good choice as the hall is very acoustically choir-friendly.

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Monday, December 1, 2008

Met in HD: Berlioz' Damnation of Faust Lepage-d!

Classical Travels with Paul E. Robinson


I learned about opera watching Herman Geiger-Torel build the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, first in the Royal Alexandra Theatre and later in the dreaded O’Keefe Centre, and annual visits to Maple Leaf Gardens by the Metropolitan Opera. As a young man, I welcomed the opportunity to see real, live opera. Mostly, what I learned and loved was the music; only later did it start to dawn on me that sets, costumes and direction could be interesting too - that is where my commitment to opera started to wane. What was presented on stage in Toronto in the 1950s and 60s was often amateurish and traditional, in the worst sense. Frequent visits to New York convinced me that the Met was not much further ahead. This distinguished company seemed content to hire the best singers money could buy and let the rest of it take care of itself.

Again, speaking personally, the future of opera began to look a whole lot brighter when I saw the productions Herbert von Karajan was presenting in Salzburg in collaboration with Gunther Schneider-Siemssen in the late 1960s and early 70s. Here was a fresh approach to a decaying art form, making use of the latest technology. Futuristic and abstract sets, complex lighting schemes and elaborate projections brought a new dimension to Wagner’s Ring cycle.

The Karajan-Schneider-Siemssen Ring was eventually brought to the Met and it was my good fortune to get to know Erwin Feher, the technical genius who adapted this production to the Met’s quite different stage and equipment.

This long introduction is my way of introducing a review of the Met’s current production of BerliozLa Damnation de Faust in its Met HD Live incarnation last week. I am all in favour of applying the latest in stage and film technology to operatic production; however, I reserve the right to object when a director turns a masterpiece into a farce. I am afraid Robert Lepage managed to do just that with Berlioz’ légende dramatique. Perhaps it was the parade of soldiers walking backwards during the “Hungarian March,” or the lines of naked men inhabiting the bowels of hell – who knew that hell was a gay bathhouse? – that did it for me. But let me start with the overall concept. More details later.

La Damnation de Faust is not an opera at all. It works perfectly well as Berlioz intended, as a concert piece. Had he wanted to turn it into an opera, he would have done so himself and most certainly would have made lots of changes in the process.

I find the whole concept offensive. To convince me otherwise will require a production far more persuasive than the incoherent mess Le Page perpetrated on the stage of the Met. Lepage has talked a great deal about how he has brought “state of the art video techniques” to this work. Mention was made of “interactive video” in which the singers can change the images simply by moving their bodies. I noticed that Lepage talked much less about any connection between the images and movements he used, and the music. My impression is that the music was simply one of many components used to heighten the theatrical experience. Think Cirque du Soleil. By the way, Lepage created a show called KA for Cirque du Soleil at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in 2005.

For La Damnation de Faust, Lepage created a huge four-story scaffolding and virtually all the action in the production takes place in some part of this structure. As set design, think the TV quiz show Hollywood Squares with each of the celebrity panelists occupying a different cell in the scaffolding matrix. At times, Lepage did indeed have characters occupying these cells, and at other times either cellular projections or integrated projections. One could understand the fun Lepage had in organizing these cells and projections, but clearly he ran out of both money and ideas. While Cirque du Soleil can easily find $32 million for a Las Vegas show, the Met would have trouble raising one-tenth of that for a single production. Nor could they find the time required for weeks of technical rehearsals.

It appears that Lepage is a director who proceeds by free association, rather than by studying the work he is engaged to produce. I am still trying to figure out why Faust was unceremoniously dumped out of a boat – why was he in the boat in the first place? – then seen to be swimming or tumbling under water along with some unidentified other folks. Later, during the scene in which spirits are apparently bewitching the sleeping Marguerite we see eight ballet dancers in separate cells in the scaffolding doing nothing more interesting than what appear to be basic warm-up exercises at the barre. The ‘climax’ of this engrossing tableau comes when a group of half-naked men attached to cables begin climbing up and down the various levels of the scaffolding. This development combined elements of Cirque du Soleil, Chippendales and Monty Python.

The “Ride to the Abyss” was one of Lepage’s great set pieces. He put together images of galloping horses and menacing birds with riders in silhouette. Unfortunately, none of the riders were either Faust or Méphistophélès, who were content to stand nearby and deliver Berlioz’ music as best they could. Then came another Faust-dump, this time into the bowels of hell and the eager arms of the Chippendales lads looking surprisingly buff and content in their new digs. The coup de théâtre was to have Marguerite ascend into heaven by way of an enormous ladder in the middle of the stage. It was all very silly and ultimately ridiculous.

And the music? Susan Graham as Marguerite and John Relyea as Méphistophélès were excellent in spite of the appalling production thrust upon them. Marcello Giordani is turning into the ‘go-to’ guy among tenors at the Met. He seems to be involved in nearly every production. In fact, on the day of this Damnation de Faust he also replaced an indisposed colleague for the evening performance of Madama Butterfly. I would like to be able to say that he sang beautifully as Faust, but alas, he didn’t. He sang sharp from almost beginning to end. I think the poor man deserves a rest. James Levine was in the pit. I have to wonder about his judgement as music director in allowing such a travesty to go forward, let alone having to look at it every time he conducted it. Perhaps that explains why he took the “Hungarian March” at such an absurdly fast tempo. No doubt he had a car waiting.

There is, of course, another way of looking at this farrago. Lepage himself has suggested that La Damnation de Faust was merely a dry run for some of the technology he is planning to use for the new Ring cycle at the Met in the fall of 2010. If so, there is still time for General Manager Peter Gelb to retract his conviction that “Lepage represents everything I believe in regarding storytelling and visual presentation.”

Lepage may be a creative genius with his own multidisciplinary production company Ex Machina or in Las Vegas, but he is out of his comfort zone in an opera house. And to hand him carte blanche with the greatest work in operatic literature is foolish and irresponsible.

For the record, at the theater I attended in Cedar Park, Texas there were only twenty people in the audience. As Yogi Berra used to say: “If they don’t want to come, you can’t stop them.” But perhaps they knew something we didn’t. Again, for the record we had the same problems with projectionists failing to turn up the volume to an acceptable level and failing to turn off the house lights after intermission. The sound quality was once again appalling, with the magnificent Met Orchestra reduced to sounding like an acoustical recording from 1920.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website.

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