If you enjoy feeling like you are a child again.., believing that in the end things will turn out happily for all..., like seeing frogs jump five feet in the air while singing in chorus, or flowers dancing and turning different colors when they turn upside down..., and if you like beautiful princesses and heroic princes and lovely melodies, then you would have loved Ottorino Respighi's opera La bella dormente nel bosco (Sleeping Beauty in the Forest), performed at the Dock Street Theater on May 30. It was one of the several highlights of this year's Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina.
Charles Perrault's fairytale "Sleeping Beauty" has inspired musicians, writers, painters, filmmakers, and dancers ever since its publication in 1689. Tchaikovsky's ballet, composed some 200 years later, and Humperdinck's 1901 opera were both for adult performers and essentially for adult audiences. Respighi's opera calls for an ensemble of puppets and is addressed to young audiences. It was so popular in the 1920s that it became Respighi's most frequently performed stage work, occupying Vittorio Podrecca's famed marionette troupe for over twenty years in wide-spread world tours. In 1933, at the request of the Teatro di Torino, Respighi completed a new version, and it was this that was brought to life in Charleston under the direction of Basil Twist, with Neal Goren, Conductor of Gotham Chamber Opera, and twelve very busy puppeteers.
The main characters in the story were life-size puppets, operated from the visible crosswalk at the top of the stage and sometimes assisted by the puppeteers, dressed in black, on the stage itself. The birds, frogs, fairies, etc., were marionettes on strings, and some creatures, such as the dancing flowers, were on the ends of long sticks operated from the side. In the crowd scenes, costumed live human beings interacted with the puppets. In a press release, Twist explains, "I normally don't show the puppeteers in my shows. I've actually been pretty adamant about that in my work. What has always defined puppetry to me, you know, is where someone is hidden and working the puppet..., [b]ut a lot of modern puppetry presents the puppeteer on stage and it's a double event at work, seeing both the puppeteer and the puppet. And that's exciting to people. And it also offers up a bunch of metaphors on creators and creation and manipulation." This may sound a bit confusing, but it did work, and it was a fascinating experience.
The vocalists wore black choir robes and sang mostly from the wings but occasionally from behind or beside the character whose voice they provided. The cast included Olga Makarina in the roles of Nightingale/Blue Fairy, Patricia Risley as Cuckoo/Cat, Daniel Sutin as Ambassador/King/Woodcutter/Mr. Dollar, Eduardo Valdes as Jester/Prince April, and Nicole Heaston as Princess. Several of the smaller roles were sung by members of the Westminster Choir, which also performed the choruses.
The singers were all well cast and projected their voices persuasively during the stage puppets' actions. Risley, as the Nightingale, and Sutin, as Mr. Dollar, were especially impressive, as were Heaston and Valdes, in the ecstatic final duet. The Westminster Choir was outstanding as the chorus of frogs, the Fairies singing in chorus, and in the crowd scenes, for which they were on stage.
La bella dormente nel bosco was accompanied by a fine pit orchestra billed as the Spoleto Festival Orchestra, conducted by Neal Goren. As the familiar story progresses the careful listener may have detected here and there references to works by Wagner, Massenet, Debussy, Puccini, and Stravinsky. For example, the Prince's journey to the castle has a reference to "Siegfried's Rhine Journey," and Mr. Dollar's Cakewalk is highly suggestive of Debussy. Respighi described the score as an innocent mockery of contemporary melodrama. His music for La bella dormente nel bosco contains a synthesis of the composer's stylistic versatility and shows his sense of humor in the parodies.
The opera lasts about an hour and twenty minutes, which is just right. The story begins in 1620 with the birth of the princess and the prediction of her sleeping malady from being pricked on the finger by a spindle. In spite of the king's order to destroy all the spinning wheels in the country, twenty years later the princess wanders into a forgotten turret in the castle where she discovers a toothless old crone weaving. Of course she is fascinated, wants to learn the craft, and pricks her finger right on cue. The story ends after Prince April cures the princess with "a kiss of love" and she and the entire royal family and attendants awake in 1940 to dance a rollicking nouveau style foxtrot. Anyone who experienced such a delightful evening and failed to go home with a broad smile on his or her face must surely have been asleep!
Note: This is the third of a series of reviews of Spoleto USA and Piccolo Spoleto events by CVNC critics.