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Summer Opera: Fielding's "Tom Thumb"

Thanks to Anne-Carolyn Bird, I learned about a fascinating production at the Northwest Puppet Center in Seattle, which I featured in my preview of Opera in the Summer 2006. It is an ingenious resurrection of an 18th-century ballad opera, Tom Thumb (based on a 1731 play by Henry Fielding, with music by Thomas Arne and Johann Hasse, as well as popular tunes), performed here by the Carter Family Marionnettes. Puppet opera was a rather important subgenre in the 18th century, especially as a relatively easy way to create parodies of popular mainstream operas, and I am delighted by modern attempts to recreate it. This particular combination, of puppeteers and live musical performers, is the most exciting of all.

I found a review by Philippa Kiraly (Rule of 'Thumb,' a lusty satirical puppet show, May 15) for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

The Carters think theirs is probably the first production in 200 years. True to tradition, they have mixed and matched from several versions and added topical comments, but it remains as it was always intended: a lusty, satirical, funny show. The opera opens with Tom Thumb's early life portrayed with small shadow puppets above the main stage, setting the mood unmistakably with a few deft vignettes. The 3-D puppets are brilliant creations, from tiny Tom Thumb bounding around, to a queen straight out of Tenniel's illustrations for "Alice in Wonderland," to a ghost, a large cow and a giantess with Wagnerian pretensions. They inhabit detailed sets, including a vaulted hall with heraldic shields and a gloomy bedroom with a curtained four-poster where the mattress rises with each bounce. [...]
Kiraly's preview of the production (Carter Marionettes tackle 18th-century 'Tom Thumb' opera, May 12) is also an interesting read:
Jonathan Swift ("Gulliver's Travels") said he only laughed twice in his life, and once was at "The Tragedy of Tragedies: The Life and Death of Tom Thumb," by Henry Fielding ("Tom Jones"), a play that was promptly developed into burlesque opera productions for adults and for puppets after its first performance in 1731. [...]

Fielding was a magistrate, and a member of the Scriblerus Club, which printed satirical pamphlets and included such men as Pope, Swift, John Gay ("The Beggar's Opera") and other literati. Fielding's gift with a pen found its target in the current rage for tragic poetic drama, which he found pretentious. "Much of the script is an attack on poetic excesses," says Stephen Carter. "The preface is hilarious." The Carters do extensive research on their period productions, and while they found a 1780s version of the libretto in the University of Washington archives, Carter's son Dmitri found a musical score from 1782 at an antiquarian bookseller in Nova Scotia.
I will simply add that this is exactly the sort of work we need right now. The Carters are taking their fascinating production to Vienna and the palace of Frederick the Great in Potsdam. [Anne-Carolyn says the Carters are not taking Tom Thumb abroad.] Sadly, there are no plans to bring it to Washington anytime soon. For some great pictures, see the post of Anne-Carolyn Bird, who sang the role of Tom in this production. Anne-Carolyn is on her way to Santa Fe again this summer, where Ionarts will happily be spending a couple of weeks in late July.

1 comment:

ACB said...

This is great, Charles; thanks for the plug for the Northwest Puppet Center! One correction: the Carters aren't taking Tom Thumb to Vienna; I believe they are taking part in a larger production. Maybe you can dig up a review in a few weeks?

The NWPC has already chosen next year's opera: The Liberation of Ruggiero from the Island of Alcina by Fracesca Caccini. I am so sad that I won't get to be involved in that one!

See you in Santa Fe!