Beauty in the Woods" —
bella dormente nel bosco"
Fairy tales are meant to enchant, and this exquisite Basil Twist production of Respighi's little-known 1922 puppet opera takes enchantment to new levels. This masterful, inventive puppetry wizard has demonstrated his magic at earlier Lincoln Center Festivals, notably with "Symphonie Fantastique," his entrancing array of swirling psychedelic fabric in motion that constituted an inanimate ballet to Berlioz' masterpiece. This time, he turned his creative sights on a delicious—alternately playful and touching—90-minute opera by Ottorino Respighi, with a libretto by Gian Bistolfi that tells the familiar "Sleeping Beauty" tale with a few variations.
After premiering at the Spoleto USA festival, "La bella dormente nel bosco" received six performances last week at the intimate theater at John Jay College that has proved so useful for adventurous, difficult-to-categorize Lincoln Center productions in recent years. A traditional proscenium venue, it was large enough to provide the necessary space for Twists' grand vision—2 puppeteers handling 75 different puppets—and to accommodate the truly wonderful musical forces that gave Respighi's score such a rich performance. Conducted by Neal Goren, these included the 30-piece Gotham Chamber Opera Orchestra and 20 singers of the Fuma Sacra Chamber Choir, along with seven exceptional vocal soloists, most of whom take on multiple brief roles.
The choir members were clustered at the front sides of the stage, men on stage right, women on stage left. A pit had been created for the orchestra. The ingenious set design—concept by Twist, with the design credited to Matthew Benedict—consisted of panels and set pieces both at stage level and above, with the upper portions sometimes masking the catwalk from which the puppeteers manipulated the many puppets that were marionettes. These very busy and skillful puppeteers (whose comings and goings during the piece must constitute a ballet in themselves) also worked from the wings, handling and operating rod puppets, and for certain life-size puppets, two or thereof them accompanied the puppetlike bodyguards, setting them in motion with a matter-of-factness that made their presence quietly secondary.
The title translates as "Sleeping Beauty in the Woods," and the opening scene is a paean to nature, with a trilling flute introducing two birds—a nightingale and a cuckoo. Each is embodied by a delightfully realistic puppet that swoops and hovers, often in time with the score, as well as a corresponding singer who stands in place onstage. The hanging panels of greenery include openings where the birds can alight on the level where the puppeteers are stationed. When the music becomes more raucous, nine adorable bouncing green frogs take the stage, then exit hurriedly (some standing up right and taking on amazingly human character) when they sense the sound of an approaching human.
This intruder turns out to be the King's ambassador, a life-size rod puppet who very realistically blows his trumpet to announced the king's desire to have all the fairies attend the festivities for the princess' birth. No sooner are these summoned than they appear, in a mesmerizingly beautiful aerial ballet. There are seven in all, with a clear leader, who floats in first, an animated Degas statuette in an exaggerated plunging arabesque. She has exquisite line, as do her sister fairies, and an impassive face like a statue of an African deity. Each of the seven magically radiates a unique color; the leader has a blue-violet hue that presumably makes her the analogue to the Lilac Fairy. They shimmer, thanks to the diaphanous fabric that is attached to their arms and torsos, creating the illusion of a vast wingspan.
They resemble a cross between ballerinas and dragonflies, and when they alight on the ground, it is only momentarily.
From here on in, the narrative is underway, enacted by puppets small and large, with many fantastical delights along the way, and with everything eloquently timed to the music's delicacy, rich melodies, and deftly mocking moments. Twist's surprises include tiny tables with spinning wheels and a spindle that cross the stage like creatures, and a "Dance of the Roses" in which ten small red-skirted rod puppets perform an amazing synchronized ballet, bobbing and tumbling, delighting the audience when their 180-degree dives suddenly turned their skirts white. This deftly choreographed sequence was like a bit of "Fantasia" performed live on stage.
The old crone whose spinning wheel and spindle lured the unsuspecting Princess (she is given no name here) was a particularly expressive puppet as she crouched and spun atop a ledge, accompanied by her mangy grey cat. In this version, she is not the evil fairy transformed for the purpose of leading Aurora to her doom; she is rather a wizened private citizen unsuspectingly becomes the agent for a court crisis. The evil analogue to Carabosse is in this case the Green Fairy, an emerald lizard-like creature with huge dinosaur wings; the corresponding singer sings wildly of "rage and revenge."
But as we all know, it is good that triumphs ultimately, even if in this case the Princess sleeps for several centuries, not just 100 years. By this time, the same woodland setting of the opening is filled by a rather tweedy bunch of hunters, a mix of life-size puppets and real people, the choir members now having slipped into the onstage action. There's a brash American, a bit too loudly dressed, among the group, and a burst of cakewalk music from the orchestra to accompany him. The prince finds his way to the sleeping princess, making his way through the giant spider web that had sealed in her spell. Initially an innocently sensual blonde, she has turned into a luscious redhead during her long sleep, and now wear a flame-red ball gown. After a sweetly timed gentle kiss, they celebrate with the full cast, human and puppet alike, as happy couples, including some very odd pairings, dance a concluding foxtrot, with birds and frogs and roses sharing in their joy.
There is almost too much to take in during these exhilarating 90 minutes.
One could nearly spend the whole time observing how the puppeteers do
their multiple tasks, moving from the catwalk above to the wings to sometimes
shadowing their larger puppets across the stage. There are subtle character
traits and expressions to the larger puppets that one could linger on
amid the action, and high above there are the helpful supertitles translating
the Italian libretto. There is also much to admire in the simple but artful
scenery, which in the first act includes a sky that evolves from mauve
to deep blue as the stars come out. Twist's production delivers a great
sense of fun yet never mocks the simple, heartfelt, age-old kind of tale
he is so generously and imaginatively depicting. He even send glittery
blue fairy dust sprinkling down when the moment is right, and we can all
sense its power.