Marionettes Bring Charm, Finesse On Trek From Austria

The Salzburg Marionette Theatre's North American tour includes a work revolving around Schumann's 'Papillons.'  (Photo by James Whittall)
The Salzburg Marionette Theatre’s North American tour includes a work revolving around Schumann’s ‘Papillons.’
(Photo by James Whittall)
By Richard Todd

OTTAWA — Marionettes aren’t the most common form of entertainment in Ottawa or, indeed, anywhere else I’ve lived. Most people of my generation will remember Howdy Doody and his daily television program. That puppetry was basic, the show being aimed at children from pre-school age to maybe nine or ten.

The Salzburg puppeteers, with their wooden charges.
The Salzburg puppeteers, behind the scene, with their charges.

The Salzburg Marionette Theatre, which appeared in Ottawa on Nov. 20, is more sophisticated by several orders of magnitude. The stories the puppets and their handlers enact are rich and complex, the movements sometimes broad and mechanical, but often remarkably life-like.

The group’s Ottawa concert was presented by the Ottawa Chamber Music Society — the parent organization of the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival, which floods Canada’s capital with concerts every summer. It was the last stop on a ten-city North American tour that started in Calgary and included New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Washington’s Kennedy Center. (Additional tour dates are planned at the Cité de la musique in Paris on Dec. 17 and 18.)

The evening’s offering in the National Gallery of Canada auditorium, with accompaniment by the American pianist Orion Weiss, was a show built around Schumann’s Papillons and Debussy’s Boîte à joujoux.

Loosely inspired by The Age of Indiscretion, a literary confection by the German Romantic writer Jean Paul, the Papillons scenario concerns two fellows, Walt and Vult, competing for the attention of the beautiful Viena. Walt appears first and courts Viena, who seems receptive enough. But then along comes Vult, an athletic type who wows the lady with acrobatics Walt can’t come close to duplicating.

We’re rooting for Walt, of course, when — deus ex machina — one of the puppeteers disassembles the two suitors, then installs Vult’s superior legs on Walt’s torso.

Pianist Orion Weiss performs Schumann as the marionettes do their thing.
Weiss played Schumann, Debussy as the marionettes did their thing.

But what about the music?

Pianist Weiss, 33, studied with Emanuel Ax at Juilliard and has gone on to build a recital career and play with the Los Angeles and New York Philharmonics, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Vancouver Symphony, among others.

His interpretation of Papillons was a bit choppy, not only on account of his having to pause while things were being rearranged for the puppets, but also due to a serious lack of cantabile.

Fortunately, he had more Schumann up his sleeve, and was able to play it without reference to any puppetry. His renditions of Blumenstück, Op. 19, and especially Novelette, Op. 21, No. 8, were cohesive and idiomatic.

Components of Debussy's toy box a la Salzburg.
Components of Salzburg Marionette Theatre’s ‘La boîte à joujoux,’ ready for assembly.

Weiss also performed Debussy’s La boîte à joujoux with a light touch that went well with the gentle fantasies of the action. But the focus of attention was the puppet show, and rightly so. The score is full of directions for stage actions, and these were the basis of what went on. Once again, one could only marvel at the inventiveness and dexterity of the company’s members.

[The Salzburg Marionette Theatre, whose fame rests on performances of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and other classical staples, will be touring to Brussels March 13-19, 2015, with its two-hour condensation of Der Ring des Nibelungen.]

Richard Todd is a semi-retired music commentator whose 35-year career included 21 years as the principal English language critic in Ottawa, writing for the Ottawa Citizen. He is also a fine-art photographer.