For their closing concert of the 2011-2012 Season the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle provided its enthusiastic audience with a unique concert of two astonishing gems presented as “A Journey through Spain.”

First was a sparkling performance of Manuel de Falla’s El retablo de maese Pedro (Master Peter’s Puppet Show). For this performance the stage was set with the orchestra clustered around the harpsichord on stage left (audience right) with the soloists in front of them. The puppet theater was on stage right with the action of people-sized puppets set in front.

The opera was commissioned in 1919 by the Princess Edmond de Polignac, one of the period’s great arts patrons. It is a play within a play, based on an episode from Cervantes’ Don Quixote which actually depicts a puppet play. Falla wrote his own libretto cutting and pasting lines from the story. It tells the tale of how Don Gayferos, a knight at Charlemagne’s court, freed his wife Melisendra from the Moors who had held her captive for many years. Don Quixote, a human size puppet with an oversized mask watching the play as presented by stick puppets on the puppet stage, becomes enraged when the Moors ride after Don Gayferos and Melisendra and slashes the puppet stage with his sword (just like the windmill episode). He sings of his own love for Dulcinea and of the glories of knight-errantry as the opera ends. For the music, Falla borrowed themes from Spanish folk and classical traditions, in addition to his own evocative inventions.

The cast included four adult-sized puppet/actors, costumed and outfitted with incredible masks created by Paperhand Puppet Intervention operating out of Saxapahaw, North Carolina for over fourteen years. They were Donovan Zimmerman, Artistic Director of PPI, playing Don Quixote; Chris Carter, Set Designer and Fabricator as Master Peter; Karen Kelley, Fabricator as The Boy-Narrator; and Jimmy Magoo, Fabricator as Sancho Panza. The stage puppets were operated by Puppeteers Lawruh Lindsey and Tarish Pipkins. I cannot over-emphasize the remarkable artistry of PPI and what they contributed to this performance.

The soloists were equally commendable, providing charm, romance and drama to the production. Mezzo soprano Erica Dunkle sang the role of the Boy-Narrator. Timothy Sparks, tenor, was Master Peter and Timothy Hall, baritone was Don Quixote. The Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle with harpsichordist Elaine Funaro was superb. Bravo to maestro Muti for bringing this rare treat to the Triangle. It is believed this was the North Carolina premiere of the de Falla opera which was first performed Jun 25, 1923 in Seville. The orchestra on that occasion was conducted by Vladimir Golschmann and Wanda Landowska played the harpsichord. A further note of interest: José Carreras made his operatic debut at age 11 as the boy narrator in a 1958 production conducted by José Iturbi.

For the second half of the concert the stage was set with the COT string players and an arsenal of percussion, tuned and unturned including a set of four tympani, bass drum, snare drum, trap set, wood blocks, triangle, castanets, four or five octave marimba, tubular bells, xylophone, and more I can’t remember. We heard Carmen Suite by Rodion Shchedrin who was born in Russia in 1932 (d. 1984).

Using the seductively lyrical and heroic music of Bizet’s ever popular Carmen as a starting point, Shchedrin took us on a fanciful string and percussion tour de force. He made full use of both elements. A team of five percussionists were quite busy during most of the work. While the percussion was used in exciting and inventive ways, some of the most striking effects were in the strings-only portions. There were haunting tremolos, harmonics, unusual pizzicato effect and more. The piece is in thirteen discreet sections including all the familiar tunes and captured the scope of the passion and tragedy of Bizet’s opera. It was first performed in 1967 in Moscow by the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra with Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting and is probably Shchedrin’s best known piece.

It was a thrilling concert to end the current season and on top of that was the announcement that the 2012-2013 Season will be expanded from five to six concerts. Who would not want to hear more of this outstanding band of musicians and their intrepid conductor?