HOTREVIEW.ORG - Hunter On-line Theater Review
Animated Operas
By Martin Puchner

Master Peter's Puppet Show
By Manuel de Falla
The Return of Ulysses
By Claudio Monteverdi

In the opera, characters come to life through the singers' voices. That these singers also have bodies and that these bodies should be capable of acting is often an afterthought, except when the singers' bodies become so large that they somehow get in the way. The world-class soprano Deborah Voigt recently found this out the hard way when she was dropped from a production at London's Royal Opera because she was deemed too voluminous to appear in a cocktail dress on stage. But usually, everyone pretty much accepts that singers aren't held to the same corporeal and actorly standards as dramatic actors. When once in a while a singer breaks this rule and displays acting prowess--for example Lauren Flanigan--a second problem emerges: the opera is revealed as a stylized and formulaic art form that doesn't call for, or permit, naturalist acting. What is a good actor to do during those long repetitions and developments conceived of by the composer with no consideration for stage action? Stand still until the next unit of action is finally reached, or else run all over the stage desperately miming the emotions that are already expressed by the music?

Recently, New York theatergoers could witness two instances of a fascinating solution to these problems: the staging of opera with puppets in Manuel de Falla's Master Peter's Puppet Show, presented by the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the Compania Tridente of Granada at BAM, and in Monteverdi's The Return of Ulysses, presented by the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie at Lincoln Center. Both these productions separated the singers from the actors and replaced the onstage performers with puppets, allowing the singers to concentrate on voice while the puppets suggested the more abstract and stylized characters called for by the musical form. The differences between the productions were striking, however, and they shed interesting light on opera, puppet theater, and the art of acting.

De Falla's Master Peter's Puppet Show was part of a concert dedicated to three twentieth-century Spanish composers interested in Don Quixote: de Falla, his contemporary Oscar Esplas, and the younger Roberto Gerhard. De Falla is the most well known and also the most explicitly theatrical of the three. His wild juxtaposition of vastly different styles, ranging from Renaissance songs to 18th-century keyboard masters, is reminiscent of Stravinsky's historical collages, and in theater circles de Falla is best known for The Three-Cornered Hat, a ballet written for Diaghilev and presented with sets and costumes designed by Picasso in 1919.

Of the pieces performed at BAM, only de Falla's Master Peter's Puppet Show, written between 1919 and 1922, called for and received a stage representation. It is based on the episode in Don Quixote in which the protagonist watches a puppet show and gets so drawn into the action that he seeks to rescue the damsel in distress, only to destroy poor Master Peter's puppet theater in the process. De Falla conceived of his piece as a puppet opera: the puppet show itself, but also Don Quixote, Master Peter, and a Narrator are represented by puppets. Thus, it contains a puppet show within a puppet show, with some puppets representing puppets and others representing humans--a perfect occasion, one might think, to probe the difference between the world of effigies and the world of humans that Don Quixote so destructively ignores.

Taking its cue from Cervantes's Baroque fascination with overlapping levels of reality and fiction, The Compania Tridente of Granada revels in devising the multiple layers of puppet theaters. Life-size figures watch Master Peter's show, which keeps changing from its initial geometrical set into a variety of other theaters and styles, like so many Russian dolls hidden inside one another. There is a certain amount of ingenuity in these transformations. As one puppet stage disappears, for example, the puppets remain without a frame until their shadows are projected onto a screen that appears behind them: the puppet show has momentarily become a shadow theater. On the whole, however, the constant changes--which seem to have absorbed most of the company's creative energy--are distracting and contribute little to the episode. All of the interest is in the transitions from puppet theater to puppet theater, with each set of puppets barely knowing what to do once its little theater stands. The puppets remain largely static or else move aimlessly about in clumsy ways. It is hard enough to convince opera singers to make an effort at acting. These puppets are worse. They are neither comic nor tragic, neither crudely jocular nor eerily uncanny (as puppets often are). They are simply wooden and don't know what to do on stage. Indeed, they seem to suffer from stage fright.

Still more disappointing, the singers, music, and puppets are entirely disconnected from one another. The singers are removed from the stage and stand in the orchestra pit. The large puppets of Don Quixote and the Narrator don't know how to react to the constant set changes occurring in the puppet theater (and one can't blame them for this, since the changes are entirely unmotivated), and the Don Quixote puppet doesn't know what to do when the Narrator laboriously recounts the story to be shown on the puppet stage. Even the culminating action, the final destruction of the theater by the misguided Don Quixote, consists only of a few awkward stabs at the frame. Narration, orchestral music, arias, outer puppets, and inner puppets all appear as fragments of a whole destroyed by some willful, misguided fellow.

These same ingredients--shadow theater, life-size puppets guided by multiple puppeteers, and separate singers--are also part of de la Monnaie's Return of Ulysses, but to an infinitely more compelling effect. Over many years of productive collaboration, director William Kentridge and the South African Handspring Puppet Company explored the profound potential of puppets. Their grotesque and harrowing adaptation of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, Ubu and the Truth Commission, set in South Africa before and after apartheid, was shown to universal acclaim in New York at the Biannual Puppet Theater Festival in 1998. For The Return of Ulysses, the group created much more classical and lyrical puppets. As in Master Peter's Puppet Show, the main protagonists are each presented by an almost life-size puppet, a puppeteer, and a singer. But where de Falla's work had kept these performers separate, here they are carefully integrated. The production did not just disassemble characters; it also reassembled them. First, the singers were up on stage, part of the ensemble, and they even helped to guide the puppets. In addition, the singers' delicate modulations, especially those of Kristina Hammarström as Penelope and of Fuiro Zanasi as Ulysses, were picked up by the subtle puppeteers and by the orchestra, which was placed in a semi-circle on the stage. All the instrumentalists, manipulators, and singers thus shared a single space and their finely attuned interactions realized a multi-layered whole. In de Falla's piece, the result was accidental fragmentation.

Kentridge and Adrian Kohler, principal puppet maker and designer of Handspring, achieved precisely what de Falla had intended almost a hundred years earlier: a modern, animated opera. This historical similarity is worth contemplating. The last turn-of-the-century witnessed a striking resurgence of serious puppet and marionette theater, including Jarry's Ubu Roi. Indeed, many of the most significant playwrights, from Maeterlinck and Yeats to Lorca--all them more or less de Falla's contemporaries--wrote well-known plays explicitly for puppets, even though these plays are now usually performed by human actors. Moreover, many visionaries of the stage, such as Gordon Craig, called on actors to imitate the impersonal grace of marionettes. The discontentment with traditional acting and traditional actors was caused, among other factors, by the newer media, including film, photography and radio, as they transformed the theatrical arts. And herein lies the analogy to our own time. We too live in an era when new media are transforming older art forms, not just theater but also those, such as film, that had contributed to the new puppet theater a hundred years ago. The recent success of Lord of the Rings, acted alternately by humans and the creations of animation engineers, is perhaps the most visible result of this development.

From this perspective, The Return of Ulysses does more than simply avoid the mistakes from which the recent production of Master Peter's Puppet Show suffers. It takes the creation of a puppet opera as an occasion for a breathtaking experiment in contemporary animation. This is perhaps only to be expected from Kentridge, who is best known for his charcoal-drawn animated films. Such films found their way into Return of Ulysses. At times, the drawings develop their own symbolism. Ulysses, for example, is represented by a single curved line that turns into a straight line, Ulysses's bow and arrow, with which he kills the suitors. At other times, the film animation shows allegorical figures, for example the owl of Minerva--Ulysses's guardian god--and also stylized landscapes and cityscapes that look like Manhattan avenues drawn with a Renaissance fascination for central perspectives. Repeatedly we see a richly adorned Renaissance proscenium stage that can turn quickly into the silhouette of Ulysses's boat in the style of a shadow theater.

One of the most compelling moments occurs when the film animation creates a bare landscape before which the puppets can walk and move. What is truly stunning about these scenes and the company's work with puppets in general is that the puppets really move and gesticulate like humans. This does not mean that they seek to fool us into thinking that they are real, as if hoping for a Don Quixote to mistake them for people. But it does mean that they have shed all the clumsiness often associated with more amateurish forms of puppet theater. Once more, Kentridge succeeds where the Compania Tridente of Granada had failed, namely in creating a multiplicity of transformations in which different animated figures and forms interact and counteract one another.

The opera opens with Ulysses sleeping on a table half covered by a blanket, surrounded by gods. Ulysses is a puppet---but a puppet that breaths. This is the mysterious core of all serious puppet theater: the attempt to animate dead matter. The sleeping Ulysses puppet remains the animating center for the conceit on which the entire show is based. His return is simply too good to be true; in fact, it can only be the product of wishful thinking. All the events depicted in the opera--Ulysses's return, his recognition by the swineherd, the alteration of his appearance by Minerva, Penelope's fidelity and the final revenge on the suitors--are the products of his dreaming as he lies on some foreign shore, an old man who will never return home. The dreaming--and breathing--Ulysses is the heart of the action that takes place around him.

This breathing and dreaming Ulysses thus animates the production, but is at the same time an animating principle that is ruthlessly analyzed, tested, taken apart, and destroyed. For Ulysses is lying on a kind of operating table and the cruel gods that surround him, played by puppeteers and singers, actually operate on him for their sport. This production is interested in animation as a subject of anatomical analysis.

The desire for anatomical knowledge is picked up in Kentridge's animated films, which frequently depict anatomical drawings, even close-ups of surgical cuts and operations, but also drawings of the pulsing heart. They are reminiscent of the anatomical drawings that had become current in the decades before Monteverdi's work, for example those of Leonardo da Vinci; but their rough, charcoal quality also has something of Goya's dark dismemberments. It is here that the production reveals the violence that forms the undercurrent of animation. As much as we want to bring puppets to life, we also want to destroy them, cutting them up in order to see that the living body is nothing more than a dead mechanism. Animation is but the counterpart of destruction. This is, perhaps, why so much puppet theater is infused with violence, especially in its lowest forms such as Punch and Judy. Kentridge understands the fundamental relation between animation and destruction, and his genius lies in the ability to find ever new forms to illuminate it: live singers and dead puppets forming single characters; breathing puppets; anatomical animation. All this is part of the dream-life of puppets and also, perhaps, of the human puppeteer.

The table on which Ulysses lies is an operating theater, a theater in which each of his limbs and reactions is exposed to the onlookers, who are anatomists and audience members at the same time. The gods' analytical violence is ultimately our own. We too watch Ulysses, we too are interested in his reaction and his emotions, and we too are eager to see how fast his heart beats when he sees the suitors or when Penelope finally recognizes and acknowledges him. People in the theaters get angry when something is obscured from their view. Here we are reminded that all theaters, ultimately, are operating theaters where protagonists are taken apart for our viewing pleasure. In this case, the anatomy lesson we get is not so much a moralistic denunciation of voyeurism as it is one more way of raising the question of life and death. It is a tribute to how deeply this production understands the magic and violence of puppet theater that we walk away realizing that this magic and violence have been part of theater all along.