4 March 2004: Rossini, The Barber of Seville

Saltzburg Marionette Theatre, Bowker Auditorium, University of Massachusetts Amherst

The charm and delight of these marionettes seem endless. Founded over ninety years ago, they are kept going by third-generation descendents of Anton Archer, a sculptor. No doubt they have evolved over the years, and I think have grown larger in scale. But it seems impossible for them to be more animated. In fact, the key, it seems, to their remarkable vitality is that they are hardly ever still, even for a moment. Constantly in action, they also have a remarkably wide range of gestures, including a specific set of characterizing gestures that, enhanced by the physical type they emulate and by costume and accessories, make them almost mistakable for human beings. Even their dexterity is phenomenal: they can play guitars, violins, and cellos, wield razors, flip up the lid of an escritoire and retrieve from it a single letter — or can throw a whole desk-full of papers into the air and onto the floor. Count Almaviva is pole-thin; Doctor Bartolo is pig-fat — the most porcine comic character I have ever seen, built like a fire plug; Rosina is tall, slim, and beautiful; musicians and guards are swarthy and aquiline-nosed or non-descript grungy. In short, the full range of comic humanity commanded by Rossini’s magical opera to appear are represented in memorable human types, moving and acting in concert or comically at odds.

And the scenery and general mise en scène puts the best of toy theaters to shame. In the opening sequence flat scenes glide on through slots in the floor. Not much later, without the curtain having been closed, the walls of Doctor Bart­olo’s house turn on a revolve, taking furniture along as it turns. Late in the opera, a storm scene brings a dim, crepuscular purple glow to the scene, punc­tuated by sudden flashes of lightning.

And all the while nothing detracts from the transparent, shimmering joyous­ness of Rossini’s music. These marionettes and their invisible minders are up to whatever musical challenge the composer can lay at their feet (perhaps not the best metaphor, after all — unless one considers that these puppets are essentially weightless, wafted through the air even as they contact the ground, and buoyed up by the incandescent spirit of the music as much as by the efforts of the ones who pull the strings). It takes ten marionetteers to perform this fast-paced, complex opera, and they all took a much-deserved bow at the end.

A measure of how wonderful these creatures are was the presence in the aud­i­ence of not a few children, some of them rather young, and all save one of them were held, rapt by the flawlessness of the performance and the sheer magnetic charm they exuded. I only wish I could have seen The Magic Flute, the Salzburg signature piece, the night before this. I hope they come back soon.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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