Northwest Puppet Center opens “Pulcinella Vendicato”

By R.M. Campbell

Every spring the Northwest Puppet Center presents an opera at its intimate, charming space in North Seattle. Spring would not be spring in Seattle, it would seem, without an opera by the Carter family at the center. This weekend a wonderfully amusing and endearing production of Giovanni Paisiello’s “Pulcinella vendicato” opened its Seattle run. The set of performances, through May 8, represents not only the opera buffo’s Seattle premiere but its American one as well.

The late 18th-century Italian composer was prolific, one of the most successful of his generation. Set, in 1770, on a one-act comedy from five years earlier, “Pulcinella” is one of some 80-90 operas that he wrote over a long career in Naples, St. Petersburg, Paris and other European capitals where he was attached to different royal courts. He was a favorite of Catherine the Great as well as Napoleon. Paisiello was also widely influential, including Mozart. One of his best-known operas “The Barber of Seville,” written in St. Petersburg, was highly regarded, including Catherine, and still is by many. However, Rossini’s version, in 1816, has taken precedence. Although Paisiello wrote serious operas, tragic operas, it is the opera buffo for which he is remembered. Despite their popularity in the late 18th century, his works fell from fashion in the following two centuries from which they have never recovered.

“Pulcinella” must be typical of his comic operas. It is sweet, amusing, filled with stock characters — commedia dell’arte at its best. There is the endearing and durable Pulcinella as well as Carmosina, Arlecchino and other characters. Happiness is followed by unhappiness followed by happiness. After trials and tribulations lovers are reunited and everyone gets to go home. The five instrumentalists are seated on house right. Some musicians double on two instruments, like Margriet Tindemans on viola da gamba and mandolin. She is also the music director and arranger. Sand Dalton plays oboe and flue. Other noteworthies in the early music world are in the band: Elizabeth C. D. Brown, guitar; Cecilia Archuleta, violin, and Peggy Monroe, percussion. On house left are the four vocal soloists: Scott Whitaker, David Stutz, Melissa Plagemann and Linda Strandberg. They sing multiple roles. The puppeteers are all members of the Carter family: Christine, Dmitri, Stephen and Eugenia Zapata. While the arias are sung in the original language, the recitatives are spoken, in English.

The costumes, the decor are done with meticulous attention to detail. Colors are vivid, like the characters. Everything is meant to make one smile: the situation and the resolution. Pulcinella and Carmosina are destined for marriage until Don Camillo arrives in Naples and woos Carmosina away. Pulcinella is devastated and wants to throw himself into the Bay of Naples. Claudia arrives, rather like Donna Elivira in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” to moan and groans that Don Camillo has thrown her over. There is also Coviello, Arlecchino and Marioletta as well as Bianchina, Mago and Tata. Pulcinella and Claudia get Mago, the genie, out of his proverbial bottle, persuade him to help them and after causing much confusion, Camosina returns to Pulcinella — he is vindicated — and Don Camillo to Claudia and the curtain comes down.

The production is such good fun that one can forget how clever everyone is, which is perhaps the point of the exercise. It is innocence allied with expert skill.

A year from now — April 29 – May 8, 2011 — will be Haydn’s “The Burning House.” It should not be missed.

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