Back in 1993, avant-garde director Robert Lepage conferred world-class status on the Canadian Opera Company with his double-bill of “Bluebeard’s Castle” and “Erwartung.” That production toured to New York and Edinburgh, earning rave reviews and numerous awards, and putting the Toronto company on the map. There’s an excellent chance the same thing will happen with Lepage’s magical treatment of Stravinsky’s “The Nightingale and Other Short Fables.” The Toronto run was sold out in advance of unanimous rave reviews, and two French engagements already are booked for 2010.

The only thing, in fact, that could stop this production from achieving global exposure is the difficulty behind the staging’s central feature: Lepage has filled the customary orchestra pit with 67,000 liters of water and put the musicians and chorus onstage. This allows for Bunraku-style Japanese puppets floating on the water, manipulated by the same singers whose roles they represent, telling the tale of a gifted nightingale whose song can even charm death away from the Emperor.

What could have been a mere gimmick instead is rendered an organic part of the storytelling, with splendid costumes by Mara Gottler, shimmering lighting by Etienne Boucher and elegantly minimalist settings by Carl Fillion all providing the perfect frame for Michael Curry’s superbly detailed puppets.

The cast is uniformly solid, but the nightingale of Olga Peretyatko is unique with her silvery vocal tone and luminous presence.

“The Nightingale” itself is only 45 minutes long and provides the second half of the bill. Lepage’s ingenuity tries to unite the various orchestral pieces and one short playlet (“The Fox”) that make up the first half by staging them all with forms of shadow play, from hands in front of a single lamp to entire bodies behind a translucent screen.

While not as successful as the second part, this initial section (with everyone in Russian costume as opposed to the Chinoiserie of “The Nightingale”) still works admirably, allowing the conducting of Vancouver Opera’s Jonathan Darlington and the always reliable COC chorus to shine.

But just for “The Nightingale” alone, this production deserves to soar.

The Nightingale and Other Short Fables

Four Seasons Center for the Performing Arts, Toronto; 2,071 seats; C$272 $259 top

  • Production: A Canadian Opera Company presentation of an opera in two acts, composed by Igor Stravinsky, production conceived and directed by Robert Lepage. Conductor, Jonathan Darlington.
  • Crew: Set, Carl Fillion; costumes, Mara Gottler; lighting, Etienne Boucher; puppets, Michael Curry. Opened, reviewed Oct. 17, 2009. Runs through Nov. 5. Running time: 2 HOURS.
  • Cast: The Fisherman - Lothar Odinius The Nightingale - Olga Peretyatko The Cook - Laura Albino The Chamberlain - Robert Pomakov The Bonze - Michael Uloth The Emperor - Ilya Bannik Japanese Envoy #1 - Adam Luther Japanese Envoy #2 - Neil Craighead Japanese Envoy #2 - Alexander Hajek Death - Maria Radner