Masters of Puppets

Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra and Madcap Puppet Theatre join forces to take on Don Quixote

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Don Quixote’s tilting at windmills is legendary, but who remembers him attacking a puppet theatre?

You’ll find it in Part II, Chapters 25 and 26, of Cervante’s masterpiece, or in its transformation as puppet opera by composer Manuel de Falla. Master Peter’s Puppet Theatre has its regional premiere in a co-production by Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, Madcap Puppet Theatre (both recent Corbett Awards for the Arts winners) and Bowling Green State University (BGSU). Master Peter is part of the CCO’s first Spanish Legends series, which begins June 7.

In this little-known episode, Quixote and his faithful page Sancho Panza arrive at an inn where a puppet theatre presents The Legend of Melisandra. Melisandra is the emperor Charlemagne’s daughter imprisoned by the Moors until the emperor persuades her chess-obsessed husband Don Gayerfos to rescue her. A boy who embellishes the details, much to the dismay of Quixote and Master Peter, narrates the story. Never one to question the reality of his fantasies, Quixote constantly interrupts the proceedings and finally destroys the puppets, singing the praises of his Dulcinea as Master Peter stands aghast.

This is not your kids’ puppet show, but it’s not Avenue Q either. Madcap’s Artistic Director John Lewandowski says puppet theatre has never been confined solely to children.

“Puppetry has always been a highly stylized art form and it’s always been a part of opera — another stylized art form,” he says. “Many puppet operas were written around the time that de Falla wrote Master Peter (1919-23), and kids were never the intended audience.”

De Falla was commissioned to write Master Peter by Winnaretta Singer, who had an elaborate puppet theatre in her home (she also commissioned Igor Stravinsky and Erik Satie to write puppet theatre scores). He wrote the libretto himself and created a score that echoes the baroque and earlier eras.

“This piece is very much off the mainstream and experimental but De Falla never neglects the details,” says CCO Conductor and Artistic Director Mischa Santora. “You hear the harpsichord and baroque references with the whole Spanish coloring.”

“It’s violent but the themes are poetic,” Lewandowski says. “The puppet show within a puppet show sets up the differences between the real and the unreal. It’s a farce but there are moments that are really sad.”

Madcap puppeteers designed and operate the life-sized puppets and marionettes on a set designed by Bradford Clark of BGSU and staged by Irina Niculescu, who has worked with Madcap for many years. Both are acclaimed nationally and internationally for their work in theatre and especially puppet theatre.

Although Madcap and CCO have joined forces before, Master Peter was “starting from scratch” for both groups. Enlisting BGSU faculty to design the set “helped us to pool concrete resources,” says Lewandowski.

And all the forces will be on the Corbett stage: orchestra, puppet theatre, five puppeteers, three singers and four actors. And don’t forget all those puppets, large and small. It’s been nearly a year and a half since Santora brought up the idea with Lewandowski and both are eager to bring Master Peter to life.

“This is something you won’t see anywhere else,” says Santora. “I’m thrilled to present a program like this.”

MASTER PETER’S PUPPET THEATRE will be presented 2 p.m. Sunday at CCM’s Corbett Auditorium and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Anderson Center (7850 Five Mile Road, Anderson Twp.) For more information, call 513-723-1182.

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