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Summer Opera: Respighi in Spoleto

We're running a series of posts this summer on places to travel to see opera in the summer. This started with our Opera in the Summer 2005 schedule. People who love opera will do nutty things sometimes to hear it, even travelling to other locations (maybe as many as three in one summer, he is afraid to admit). As you can probably guess, seeing Turandot or Marriage of Figaro for the nth time does not interest me, so we are talking here about really good things to hear.

The Spoleto Festival USA opened on May 27 and will end this Sunday, June 12. I have not yet visited Charleston, South Carolina, and I have not been to the Spoleto Festival, either, but there are usually one or two operas each summer that I would like to see. James R. Oestreich, in his article (A Don Giovanni Close to the Edge, Like Everyone Else, June 7) for the New York Times, writes mostly about the Spoleto production of Don Giovanni, which he said is the most-discussed opera there. (In short, he finds most of its shocking qualities of that production to be not only extraneous to the story of Mozart's opera but pointless and boring.) Getting to the first opera on our summer list, Ottorino Respighi's marionette opera, La bella dormente nel bosco (Sleeping Beauty in the Woods), here is a snippet (with links added):

"La Bella Dormente, from 1922, is notable here for magic of another sort, the puppetry of Basil Twist. Increasingly through the show, the puppeteers reveal their tricks, pulling their strings and levers for all to see, yet the magic remains. The marionettes, from bird size to man size, are beautifully made and endlessly fascinating. The locals seemed especially taken with the hilarious frogs, tree frogs being as much a symbol of Charleston as palmetto trees. Respighi's score, well rendered in a performance conducted by Neal Goren, is sweet - by the end, perhaps, a little too sweet.
On the same production, we also have Steven Brown's article (Twist at every turn in 'Beauty', June 4) for the Charlotte Observer:
A prince and princess, newly smitten with each other, are so transported with love that they rise into the air. A spinning wheel is more than a prop: After serving its wicked purpose, it hops and wriggles in a celebratory dance. A chorus of fairies wafts above the stage, fluttering their diaphanous wings. How many opera directors have wished they could bring such fantasy to the theater? Basil Twist does it in "Sleeping Beauty in the Woods." [...] Twist doesn't even try to hide the mechanics. Strings, hands and even whole puppeteers -- 12 are at work -- slip into view. The singers, most of whom voice multiple characters, step into view when one of their puppet counterparts needs to sing. After a few minutes, it all looks perfectly natural. Isn't opera all about artifice, anyway?

When the phalanx of almost-human-sized fairies, each of its own pastel shade, floats in soft light above the Dock Street Theatre's stage, it's one of the most magical sights you'll ever behold on stage. Twist's little surprises, such as those levitating lovers, are delicious, too. When a woodsman whittles on a stick, it's no pantomime: The chips fly. Dancing roses change color. Even the stars dance. In Wednesday's performance, the fairies' voices were as ethereal as their bodies, thanks to the women of the Westminster Choir. Conductor Neal Goren and the orchestra reveled in the music's lyricism, shimmer and jollity. The solo singers made every character vivid, be it in sweetness or viper-tongued evil. Soprano Olga Makarina, as the Nightingale and the kindly Blue Fairy, made their music into especially heady stuff. Her voice gleamed like the stars, and it soared nearly as high.
For a less appreciative review, we have Jeffrey Day's article (A puppet opera with all too many Twists, June 1) for The State:
What’s new is that the puppets have grown to human size, the puppeteers are visible and the soloists are on stage with the puppets at the Dock Street Theatre. Making the puppets so large, though, undermines the puppet actors’ role; why use marionettes if they are as big as people? Their size also draws attention to the shortcomings of stringed puppets — they can be magical on a small scale, but at this size every move looks like a chore. And we can see they have no mouths to sing with.

The size also emphasizes what many already think about marionettes: that they are ugly and creepy. The heads on those that Twist has created are either small and undistinguished or large with huge foreheads and bent noses. (The Queen is so bent over and bustle bound she looks like a pony.) Few in the audience may notice this, though, because although it’s fun to see those who give life and voice to the puppets, it’s too much to look at.
This production will go to the Lincoln Center Festival in July, you lucky New Yorkers! The last performance in Spoleto is this evening at 8 pm. Marionette opera has a long tradition, especially in France, as you might imagine. They were especially popular as parodies of mainstream operas in Paris, some of which I have studied.

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