The Gotham Chamber Opera at the New Victory Theater on Saturday, October 9.
Not everyone liked the little puppet boy in Anthony Minghella’s 2006 production of Madama Butterfly. The artifice was unapologetically overt: the puppeteers might have been dressed in black, but they were there on stage, right next to Cio-Cio San, manipulating the boy’s head and limbs by hand. You either accepted it or you didn’t.
I did. To my eyes, the puppet fit beautifully into the production’s vividly stylized aesthetic, apiece with the paper-lantern stars and, for that matter, the thirty-something Butterfly. But I can understand (grudgingly) how for other people, puppetry was jarring in a relatively realistic opera and better suited for something like, oh, El Gato Con Botas, in which the lead is not a victimized teenage girl but a wily talking cat.
Those people clearly are no fun at all. The stunningly expressive creations of Blind Summit Theatre (the company responsible for the puppets in Butterfly and El Gato) should not be limited to children’s fairy tales—though they are, I admit, perfect for fairy tales. Xavier Montsalvatge’s slight little opera isn’t much on its own, but with the cat and rabbits and ogre (not to mention a few of the humans) brought to life through Blind Summit Theatre’s artistry, El Gato Con Botas makes for a dazzling hour or so of entertainment.
I had hoped for a bit more from the music. Montsalvatge is best known for Cinco canciones negras, which feature more rhythmic and harmonic interest than El Gato, which is bland by comparison. Nevertheless, all the singers have beautiful, eloquent voices—plus, a willingness to look silly, also necessary here and rather charming in and of itself.
Director Moisés Kaufman, in collaboration with puppetry director Mark Down, keeps everything moving briskly and brightly; even the smallest interlude is an opportunity for dancing rabbits or a colorful depiction of a river. The interaction between puppets and human performers is fluid and unselfconscious—particularly impressive in the case of the king, who has the human face of the man singing the role atop a small puppet body manipulated by a black-garbed puppeteer standing behind the baritone. The effect is goofy but easy for the eye to accept, so seamless is the connection between the two.
The most impressive character is probably the ogre, who transforms into a number of different creatures (a lion, a parrot, a rat) during his confrontation with the cat. At least half a dozen puppeteers are involved in the elaborate apendage-by-apendage metamorphoses, which don’t attempt to trick the eye but which have a kind of magic about them even so.
The magic is in the handcrafted cleverness, the wit and creativity with which the story is told. Now that I think about it, that is why Blind Summit Theatre’s puppetry is perfect for El Gato Con Botas. Puppets are perfect not because this is a fairy tale but because the tale itself is a celebration of cleverness, wit, and creativity. How better to dramatize it than with the cat’s own gifts?