By Philippa Kiraly
The correct title of Paisiello’s 1770 opera is “Pulchinella Vendicato.” Y ou can translate vendicato as vengeance or revenge, or as puppeteer Stephen Carter put it, gets even.
However you don’t have to wait long to find out just what Pulchinella does in that vein as the opera begins Friday this week and goes on weekends until May 2, at Northwest Puppet Center.
This is the 11th consecutive year opera has been mounted by the Puppet Center, with a fine early music ensemble of singers and instrumentalists, and of course, the puppets themselves. Stephen Carter has made several new puppets for this show and all of them have new clothes, made by Christine Carter.
Stephen’s set is traditional, with depth and seven backdrops of Naples, complete with a smoking, or even erupting, Vesuvius in the background.
Naples is where Pulchinella comes from, says Stephen. Each Commedia dell’Arte character is from a specific area, for instance Il Dottore from Bologna, Arlecchino from Bergamo. The opera was originally presented, with humans, during Carnival in 1770, and was such a hit it went on there longer than any other had before.
Puppets and the Commedia went hand in glove, with singers often singing for both types of presentation and even set designers designing both and using costume shop scraps to clothe the little figures.
After a long-time patron suggested this opera (commenting that the Carters managed to inject Pulchinella into every opera they did so why not one just for himself?), it took several years for the Carters to track down a score in the Conservatory Archives of Naples via Italy’s Cultural Ministry.
Once in hand, music director Margriet Tindemans found it to be sketchy in the extreme, with just the bass line and a first violin part. She has recreated the rest, probably much as was done then, when a show would travel and use whatever musicians were at hand. They were used to improvising.
Nobody knows the origin of puppets. They seem to have evolved separately in different cultures as early as written language, for instance in ancient Egypt, Africa, China
, Greece . “There is a cave painting in Lascaux with a bird head on a stick,” says Stephen, “and a pre-Columbian stone carving of a figure holding a hand puppet,” the four main types of puppets being had puppets, rod puppets, shadow puppets and string puppets, or marionettes.
It’s a strong tradition in puppetry to ad lib political satire and social commentary. “It stands to reason that puppets would do social satire,” says Dmitri Carter, son of Stephen and Christine. “They could get away with it. In fact puppets misbehaved so much that they were kicked out of religious use.”
In China, Mao loved puppets, so the theater flourished there, but it had to toe the party line: “Good communists, bad Americans!” says Christine. “There was a lot of technical innovation, though. Until then stories had been classic, not contemporary. Now they had to learn how to make a puppet soldier salute, or ride a motorcycle.”
The senior Carters came to puppetry as children, and found they drifted into into it as a career.”We love it because it’s so interdisciplinary: art, music, dance, theater,” says Stephen. “We started seriously the year our daughter Heather was born, 35 years ago. Both children started performing with us as preschoolers, travelling the world with us and the puppets.” Over time they travelled all over Central Asia, China, Japan, Europe and two years in Romania where Stephen had a Fulbright scholarship, finally settling in Seattle, first renting space at the Phinney Neighborhood Center and then 17 years ago achieving their own theater at what is now the Northwest Puppet Center. Although they have used all kinds of puppets, they mostly work with marionettes.
Being a small community, professional puppeteers know each other all over the world, and the Carters have felt welcomed wherever they went. Dmitri says he never seriously considered another career.”By the time I went to college I already had 15 years of puppets under my belt,” he says. Now a third generation of Carters joins in, Heather’s daughter Xajida is named after an Uzbek puppeteer they met, Dmitri’s wife Jen is a six th generation puppeteer from China, and all of them, including the other two grandchildren, have performed together.
Although theirs is a small operation, the Carter family is well known in puppet circles. They have a superb collection of over 1000 puppets going back to the 1800s. “Puppets don’t always last that long. It’s a hard life, theaters get burned, they get banged around during travel, some puppeteers want their puppets buried with them, and they’re often made of perishable materials, like papier mache,” says Stephen. The Carters display theirs in rotation for anyone coming to the theater to see. And they have the biggest research library of puppetry in the country, over 3000 books, some from before 1600.
To get tickets, go to www.nwpuppets.org, or call 1-800-838-3006.