On Wednesday morning pupils from schools all over the Sultanate poured into the Royal Opera House Muscat for the first of five performances of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ by the Carlo Colla Puppet Theatre. Thanks to the insight and imagination of the Education and Outreach team at ROHM to share different genres of musical presentation with Oman’s young people, the Milanese puppet company were brought over from Italy. Together with the 43-strong, ‘Orpheus Radio Symphony Orchestra’, they came to entrance and delight children of all ages in a fantasy production of Charles Perrault’s 17th century legendary tale.
In the auditorium there was a stage-within-a-stage, a magical story-book theatre, beloved by children throughout the world of ages past, and many excited youngsters sat with baited breath as the half-sized curtain emblazoned with, ‘Once Upon a Time’ was set to rise. The conductor of Tchaikovsky’s iconic ballet score, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, was the versatile young Russian star, Alevtina Ioffe, who was here in Muscat just a month ago for the State Ballet of Georgia’s presentation of the same score. When she appeared to great applause the show was set to begin. An amazing 3D theatre, reproducing the visual impact of the great opera houses, was revealed behind the diminutive front drop and a beautiful scene of the ‘Palace Hall’ was ready for Princess Aurora’s baptism. The story was narrated in Arabic or English for different audiences on pre-recorded soundtracks, and the English presentation at 11am each day had clearly spoken dialogue with quaintly appropriate regional accents. Cantilena, the Court’s Nurse, had an endearing London lilt, just right for a Royal Nursery! The actors were string puppets about two feet tall, operated from a manoeuvre bridge three metres high, by the thirteen puppeteers of the ‘Compagnia Marrionettistica Carlo Colla &Figli’. The figures were sculptured and wood-carved with incredibly expressive faces, and dressed in elaborately tailored period costumes. The children had been taught many aspects of puppeteering and how to waltz in school in preparation for their visit.
The seven coloured fairies of the folktale performed, gliding and dancing in clever synchronisation to some beautiful woodwind playing from the pit, while each spoke in rhyme as they offered gifts, finishing with a familiar Tchaikovsky Waltz. The thunder forewarning the entrance of the wicked fairy, Misery, was anticipated by huge gestures from the conductor visible in the pit, lighting effects and a double-headed dragon. Misery herself was brilliantly created with an ugly expression and dark violet costume, while Fairy Harmony was serene in silver and white, accompanied by her helper-Sylphs. The curtain fell to some famous Tchaikovsky melodies and rose again to reveal the lush Palace Garden where the sixteen-year-old princess, with long blond hair and golden robe, was playing with her spaniel dog, Puff – much to everyone’s delight. Some new characters in the show were enlightening to those who did not know the full story. Puff barked at the intrusion of an “Old Lady” to smoke and red lighting, aware that this was really Misery in disguise.
The curtain dropped again and an entr’acte of timps and trumpet fanfare with full brass and bass drums heralded a visit to Harmony’s Kingdom where her squeaky, cute Sylphs were sewing a long wedding veil in gold thread for Princess Aurora. They left in a flying puppet-chariot on a sky backdrop, to gasps of amazement from the young viewers.
The children were not expected to grasp the finer points of Tchaikovsky’s legendary skill in orchestration, but there is no doubt that they appreciated the splendour of his brass fanfares and timpani rolls, even on a subconscious level, as it underpinned the drama of dragons, storms and evil fairies.
The curtain rose again, showing the full depth of the proscenium, where Princess Aurora’s Bedroom was draped in an evocative blue haze. The following scene brought all the magic of a visual fantasy to the ‘Woods next to the Castle’. The Sylphs were looking for herbs to break the evil spell, and Duffy’s character was delightfully emphasised with a less-than-bright tone of voice, opposite a distinctly wise Northern (English) helper! As Harmony put everyone to sleep, the Palace became like a Doll’s House, its front wall opened to reveal the inhabitants asleep. Brambles and trees grew up in front of the eyes, layer by layer, to hide and protect those inside for a hundred years. Prince Désiré arrived as predicted by a hunting fanfare, and after a convoluted new twist in the story (to allow for new characters to entertain) the evil Misery was doomed to live forever trapped in a tree trunk. The theatrical effect in reverse allowed the brambles to peal away and the bushes gradually opened up to reveal the Castle facade. The Grand Finale took on a Fairy Tale Book quality. A parade of Perrault’s famous folktale characters – true to the ballet score – paraded across the stage in celebration of the wedding, for the children to identify. They were also the stories in the Carlo Colla repertoire: Snow White and her Seven darling Dwarfs, Cinderella and her Handsome Prince, Puss in Boots, Little Red Riding Hood, her undressed grandmother, the Wolf in grandma’s clothing pursued by the Hunter who shot the interloper, Bluebeard and others.
The young audience was entranced and fascinated by the optical illusion of the Teatro delle Marionette and the live orchestra playing in the pit. They were more attentive and focused than ever at a ROHM children’s programme, and their exemplary behaviour put some adults at other performances to shame! There will be a public performance at 4pm on Saturday, but those lucky enough to have enjoyed the experience already must be wondering when they will next be treated to a production of Eugenio Monti Colla’s Magical Puppet Shows.
STORY BY GEORGINA BENISON
PHOTO BY KHALID AL BUSAIDI