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Miraculous play on age-old techniques mirrors Stravinky's music in 50,000 litres of water and 50 minutes

Thai and Vietnamese puppetry. Acrobats, Chinese shadow play and Japanese costumes. A Chinese conductor for a Dutch orchestra, a Canadian directing team and, as the main work, a scant 50-minute opera by a Russian composer, based on a fairy tale by a Danish writer who took his inspiration from China. Loosely.

That, and fifty thousand litres of water, are the ingredients for The nightingale and other fables at the Amsterdam Music Theatre. A performance in which nothing is what it seems.

It already starts with Ragtime, a short instrumental piece for 11 instruments, which despite its title is not a true ragtime, but rather Stravinky's reaction to that new music at the beginning of the 20th century - but with the melody broken into pieces. The cradle songs and Russian peasant songs that follow are interesting because of the unusual instrumentation, but certainly not as revolutionary as the Sacre. The short opera Le rossignol (The Nightingale) after intermission is among Stravinsky's accessible works.

A mishmash, in other words.

It seems to be a speciality of De Nederlandse Opera: in 1999, the company combined under the title Biblical pieces already some eight 'religious' works by Stravinsky into a full-length performance. The unity that that performance had is far from it here before the interval, tending too much towards variety, albeit of a very high standard.

Unsurprisingly so, as the person responsible for this evening is Robert Lepage, who has not only created stunning visual effects for Cirque du Soleil, but also Peter Gabriel in an aan Doctor Who borrowed telephone booths and currently placed a high-tech Ring des Nibelungen of Wagner realises.

What all his staging has in common is the emphasis on 'just telling a story'. This can be done with state-of-the-art computer effects, the heaviest sets in New York history, but also with age-old and essentially very simple techniques, as now in The nightingale. And although it seems like Lepage is just borrowing wildly from Russian folklore and various Eastern theatre forms, he constantly mirrors Stravinsky's music.

The Chinese-sounding patches in Le Rossignol have nothing to do with Chinese music, but merely sound that way to our Western ears, just as we think such Eastern sounds in Puccini's Turandot to hear. Hans Christian Andersen didn't write a Chinese fairy tale either, he made one up. That precisely in Amsterdam - this performance was previously seen in Canada and France - there is no white Western man in front of the orchestra, but a Chinese woman, only perfects the play with authenticity.

For it is precisely when Russian folk songs sound that Lepage displays the most Chinese element of the evening (the shadow play); when Russian soloists Olga Peretyatko and Ilya Bannik rise to great heights in their own language, Lepage plays with puppets that have nothing to do with Russia.

The result? A fairytale-like evening that becomes more and more unified after the interval. A very contrived simplicity by simple means, though. Exactly like the music of music by Stravinsky. A small miracle.

Henri Drost

Henri Drost (1970) studied Dutch and American Studies in Utrecht. Sold CDs and books for years, then became a communications consultant. Writes for among others GPD magazines, Metro, LOS!, De Roskam, 8weekly, Mania, hetiskoers and Cultureel Persbureau/De Dodo about everything, but if possible about music (theatre) and sports. Other specialisms: figures, the United States and healthcare. Listens to Waits and Webern, Wagner and Dylan and pretty much everything in between.View Author posts

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