That desperate fairytale feline who uses trickery and persuasion to get rich and marry off his poor master to a princess, is the hero of El gato con botas, now at New York’s New Victory Theater. Composed by Xavier Montsalvatge, an undeservedly little- known Catalan, it’s been given an exquisite production involving the combined efforts of Gotham Chamber Opera, Tectonic Theater Project and Britain’s Blind Summit Theatre.
Blind Summit’s work features puppeteers in black manipulating sizable puppets. The fabulous protagonist, handled by three puppeteers, is at least lynx-size and performs with supreme agility. This includes sundry superhuman movements and the use of mouth and tongue in perfect synchronism with the soprano who must often scramble to stand beside him. Other puppets require fewer handlers. Some, like the adorable rabbits (that, diverging from the original tale by Charles Perreault, do not get eaten), can do with just one each. Frequently a human head surmounts a puppet body and limbs, to excellent comic effect. Nestor Lujan’s libretto elaborates charmingly on the original. Thus the Cat in the story requested only boots against the underbrush and a sack for rabbits, whereas the opera gives him an elaborate cavalier costume and a sword made of bone to hypnotize the bunnies and much else for our constant delight. Romantic Tale The only exclusively human characters are the miller and the princess, which makes the event, what with attractive singing actors, also a bona fide romance.
The entire cast is young and appealing as well as vocally proficient enough to pass muster with the most fastidious opera fans. Deserving of every possible accolade are director Moises Kaufman and conductor Neal Goren, plus all their inventive colleagues: puppetry director Mark Down, puppet designer Nick Barnes (notably for the gloriously swashbuckling Cat), set designer Andromache Chalfant, costume designer Clint Ramos, and lighting designer David Lander. The first and final salute, though, goes to Montsalvatge’s superbly various music, which should engender performances of the composer’s many other remarkable works. And that irresistible Cat of the wondrous ways should induce the most hardened ailurophobes to save the next kitten from being drowned.