Oberlin Sinfonietta Unites Musicianship, Whimsy

Daniel Hautzinger, Staff Writer

Puppet opera has to be one of the more surreal genres out there. Opera, a consecrated art that requires massive effort and scads of money to produce, certainly makes for an incongruous bedmate with the puppet show, an easily accessible street entertainment that at its most minimal requires only some socks, buttons and a couch to hide behind. Yet there is a strange logic in the combination: Both are based on spectacle, often involving slapstick comedy and requiring a broad imagination for the fantasies they depict to succeed. In some ways, opera is the grown-up version of puppet theater.

In his El Retablo de Maese Pedro, Manuel de Falla shows just how easily the two can be combined. Depicting an episode from Don Quixote in which the don observes a puppet show and becomes so wound up in the story that he attacks the stage, this is a fantastical, comedic work that requires immense creativity. Last Thursday, the Oberlin Sinfonietta and various artists and performers under the direction of Claudio Orso-Giacone, outreach coordinator of the Apollo Outreach Initiative, proved themselves more than up to the task.

The all-encompassing spectacle of Oberlin’s production summons numerous comparisons while still remaining entirely unique. It included larger-than-life, vibrant puppets along the lines of those in Julie Taymor’s Broadway production of The Lion King, although these puppets were playfully crafted from recycled material. Its delightful story and appeal for children recalls Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, but El Retablo is funnier and more boisterous. The beautifully detailed shadow puppets obviously harken back to street shows; however, Oberlin’s colorful puppet theater was destroyed by a raging Don Quixote decked in glittering armor and armed with a broadsword the size of a person.

It would be easy to pair such a work with a weak score, only there to provide an excuse for Disney-esque theatrics. Falla’s music avoids that trap. Strongly neoclassical, it recalls Stravinsky’s Petrushka (another piece with puppets in the story) and the courtly music of Scarlatti. The plot of the puppet show that Don Quixote observes was advanced in quick stretches of recitative. The orchestral sections then vividly illustrated that action: plaintive oboe soloes for the princess, vaguely Eastern melodies for the Moor, horn calls for Don Gaiferos, the hero.

The novelty of El Retablo de Maese Pedro unfortunately overshadowed the first half of the Sinfonietta’s concert, containing songs by Stravinksy, Tommasini and Bartók. Elaine Daiber, Conservatory senior, delivered a full-hearted performance of Stravinsky’s Pribaoutki (“Nonsense Rhymes”), but the four brief songs are less than endearing. Based off of Russian folk songs, it is as if Stravinsky is mocking his heritage through dissonance, drunken accompaniments and banal texts.

Bartók’s Three Village Scenes, Sz. 79, are similar in their use of folk songs and harshness but are much more successful. It seems as if Bartók actually respects the material he is using, where Stravinsky was trying to rip it to shreds with his caustic disdain. The eerie harmonies of the second scene conjured the melancholy of bleak Eastern-European winters, while the third scene was a raucous romping dance.

Tommasini’s Three Spanish Songs were an outlier, being the only work not composed in the first quarter of the 20th century and not grounded in the composer’s nationality. Sandwiched between the Stravinsky and Bartók, the liquid calmness of Spanish Songs was a reprieve from the brutality of those composers’ pieces, but also caused a weird disruption in continuity. Nonetheless, the third song was unsettlingly beautiful with its repeating scale fragments and tolling chords.