We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Sunday, November 9, 2014


The Doll and the Soldier--photo courtesy of Salzburg Marionettes

We have been great fans of the Salzburg Marionette Theater ever since we saw them in Salzburg.  At that time we enjoyed their versions of our favorite Mozart operas. When they visit New York, we call it a special occasion.  The last time they came to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, we reviewed their amazing Ring Cycle; they used recorded music of course, but gave delightful representation to the characters of Wagner's magnum opus.

This visit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, was something entirely new but operatic in its own way.  The program was entitled La Boîte à Joujoux and if you expected it to be strictly for children you would have been mistaken. We cannot speak about the afternoon performances but at the evening performance the mainly adult audience was entranced while the few children present laughed out loud at the episodes of violence and dismemberment (!).

The program began with a curious curtain raiser in which a girl in a green mini-dress accompanied by her friend is courted by two very different men--one shy, awkward and affectionate, the other a dashing show-off with some dazzling moves.  What was most interesting about this episode was that despite the blank featureless faces of the marionettes, the highly articulated bodies told us everything we needed to know.

In a meta-dramatic move, one of the puppeteers came around in front of the white panels which composed the set, removed the legs of the two men and exchanged them.  Now, the awkward young man had the moves while the cocky guy stumbled around.  This did not solve the girl's dilemma. We couldn't help thinking about the ending of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte in which the women are torn between two men.

Although it was surreal, our thoughts ran to the philosophical--in many respects we are not responsible for the gifts we are given in life and feel powerless when these gifts are lost. Of course, our special situation as sentient human beings provides us with tools to deal with our fates; marionettes can only be victims.

Obviously, that is something the kids did not get.  What they did get was the cartoon-like humor of the legs skittering away across the stage and the head-banging of the disappointed would-be lover as well as the head-butting rivalry of the two boys.

Meanwhile, gorgeously costumed characters from several Mozart operas waltzed in and out of the scene, often imitating the physical actions of the four modern youths. This was artistically and visually pleasing if not immediately comprehensible.  Equally strange was the large red boot that waltzed across the stage.

The music by Robert Schumann was nothing short of glorious, as performed by Orion Weiss on the piano.  We heard "Papillons, Op.2", "Blumenstück in D flat, Op. 19", and "Novelette No. 8 in F sharp minor, Op. 21"--each a jewel with melodies galore. Perhaps modern music lacks melody because Mozart, Schumann and Schubert used them all up!

Following an intermission, one of the puppeteers came out with a giant key and wound up the sleeping Mr. Weiss for the titular work which Claude Debussy called a "children's book ballet". The entire evening was marked by the puppeteers, all dressed in black but with no pretense of invisibility, interacting with the puppets as well as with Mr. Weiss.

There was an adorable doll with golden curls and a yellow dress whose perfectly articulated feet allowed her to dance on point; her arabesque could not be faulted. She was courted by the stalwart wooden soldier and the lewd and long-armed Pulcinella who required all the puppeteers to animate him.  Another love triangle! (See yesterday's review).

There was a wonderful battle in which the squad of wooden soldiers pelt Pulcinella with a pea shooter and canned peas.  Pulcinella retaliated with a cannon ball and the doll's soldier falls in battle.  Not to worry, because in a touching scene she brings him back to life and a standing position.  It was difficult not to be moved.  One is surprised at how rapidly the marionettes and puppets become "real" to us in the same way that animated characters in films do.

Finally, the doll and the soldier buy a farm with lots of sheep and ducks.  Twenty years later they are successful, fat and prosperous.

Mr. Weiss' performance of the Debussy work was filled with wonder; he is a quietly sensitive pianist who brought out all the subtleties of the score with technical perfection.

The Salzburg Marionette Theater has been performing for over a century.  For many years travelling puppet theaters were the only theatrical performances permitted by the Catholic church.  Now, of course, with theater and opera available and cherished all over Austria, they exist because they have created a unique and enchanting method of storytelling.  We hope they will be around for another century to delight and entertain many generations to come.

© meche kroop

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