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Palo Alto Online Preview: Marionettes Meet 17th-Century Feminism

Palo Alto Online posted this preview of Magnificat’s upcoming performances. The original can be viewed here.

Marionettes meet 17th-century feminism
The Magnificat ensemble explores the lost art of puppet opera

by Be’eri Moalem

“Marionettes are able to do fantastic things,” Carter said. “They can fly through the air. They can burst into flames. You can chop a character’s head off. We built a wave machine.”

Lovers of classical music all know masters such as Bach, Mozart and Beethoven; their music is performed year after year.

Some may even know 17th-century names such as Monteverdi and Purcell. But what about composers such as Peri, Allegri, Melani or Caccini? Cazzati, Rovetta and Rigatti?

When examining the music of the 17th century, Stanford-trained musicologist Warren Stewart was amazed at its beauty, and how relatively rarely it is performed. So he co-founded Magnificat, a San Francisco early-music ensemble that promotes and performs 17th-century music.

Magnificat’s performers try to give authentic Baroque-style concerts, using special instruments such as valve-less horns and working within an entirely different style of musical organization and style (clefs and key signatures did not function as they do today).

“The 17th century was a big experiment,” Stewart said, referring to the arts as well as science. “Suddenly Earth was not the center of the universe but a tiny speck in space, and suddenly exaggerated human emotions were depicted in painting and in this new art form, opera.”

Next week, Magnificat brings to Palo Alto an opera that is particularly pioneering — Stewart says it’s the first opera composed by a woman. Francesca Caccini’s “La Liberazione di Ruggiero” is a tale of two powerful sorceresses who battle over the political fate of a young prince. Over the course of the story, monsters are conjured up and one of the women magically transforms into a man and then back into a woman.

According to Stewart, the political subtext and symbolism were not lost on Archduchess Maria Magdalena, who commissioned the opera as the prelude to an equestrian ballet. She was struggling to hold on to power in the early 1620s after her husband died and his heir was only 10 years old; feminism and gender power struggles are age-old themes.

Meanwhile, Stewart said, the feminist angle is magnified by the fact that the opera was composed by arguably one of the first women in modern history to make a full career out of music. The main breadwinner in her family, Caccini was a respected lutenist, harpsichordist, singer, writer and composer.

In addition, Magnificat’s production of “La Liberazione” features the lost art of puppet opera. Once a thriving tradition, especially in Italy, puppetry has been usurped by film and TV media. But this production provides a rare opportunity to see ornate miniatures and mechanized special effects in a live performance.

The Seattle-based Carter Family Marionettes group, which will be featured in this production, has been working with puppets for more than 30 years.

“We build them ourselves. We carve the wood and paint all the scenery,” company founder Stephen Carter said. The Carters have toured the world with their puppets, performing from Uzbekistan to France to Mexico. Three generations of Carters are all involved in the production.

Puppet theater originates from the time of troubadours who traveled Europe singing epic poems about adventures full of magic, love and sword fighting, Carter said. When political satire was added to the mix, fussy rulers were dismayed. They decreed restrictions on the number of actors allowed on stage. The actors cleverly circumvented the laws by acting with dolls instead of live actors, and so marionettes were born.

“Marionettes are able to do fantastic things,” Carter said. “They can fly through the air. They can burst into flames. You can chop a character’s head off. We built a wave machine.”

In the 17th century, before the days of cinematic special effects, at royal courts “extremely elaborate stage mechanisms were constructed,” Carter said. “They had huge revolving drums with ropes and pulleys and an extraordinary amount of painting. Nobody can afford to build these sets live today. But we do it in half scale. Compared to (today’s) cinema magic the effects can seem naive … but it was really quite spectacular.” Having this happen on stage gives extra meaning to the phrase “deus ex machina.”

Only a handful of puppet opera productions have taken place in the past decade, and most use recorded music, Carter said.

In Magnificat’s Oct. 16 production, the singers will be in the pit with the musicians rather than on stage, and thus won’t act out the action as they normally would. At center stage are the 3-foot-tall puppets operated by metal rods. The opera is 90 minutes long and sung in Italian with translations in supertitles.

This will be the first of Magnificat’s four concerts this season, each featuring music from a different Italian city: Florence, Milan, Venice and Mantua. Stewart, who traveled in Italy this summer, said, “Although the cities are modern in every way, you are always aware of the past.”

Anybody who has been to Italy can confirm that thanks to the overload of art and architecture, history surely asserts itself, Stewart said. “Though I can’t afford to take my audience on a grand tour of Italy, we can do it musically.”

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