The Lincoln Center Festival has a sure hit on its hands with Ottorino Respighi's 1922 puppet opera "La Bella Dormente nel Bosco" ("Sleeping Beauty in the Woods"), which opened Tuesday night at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater of John Jay College. No doubt most of the buzz will go to the enchanting production by the puppeteer and director Basil Twist, which played recently at the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston, S.C.
But Respighi's music should share the honors. Respighi may be a minor composer but what matters most with any work of musical theater is how well the music conveys and comments on the story. And this sweet, witty and wistful score, surely Respighi's strongest work, does the job and more.
Still, Mr. Twist's ingenious and elaborate production, which involves 75 puppets, 12 hard-working puppeteers who hover visibly from a catwalk above the stage and elsewhere, 12 singers, a chorus and a chamber orchestra, is what will linger in the memories of those who see it. As the scene is set in a forest near a castle in some fabled land, we see a marionette nightingale and cuckoo bird, who flutter about the stage offering a hymn to nature. In most productions, including the original one, the singers are positioned in the wings. Mr. Twist places them on stage, where, without calling attention to themselves, they mingle with the puppets.
Soon leaping green frogs frolic and sing a croaking chorus. Then life-size human characters appear, including the king and queen and an impish jester who juggles colored scarves in the air. That the puppeteers who manipulate these figures are often fully visible just makes the magic more magical.
When the king invokes the fairies of the woods to appear and bless his new daughter, a diaphanous ballet corps of innocently naked marionette fairies of different hues and with lacy wings do a surreal dance, complete with floating leaps and haughty poses. But my favorite was the toothless crone, a forgotten woman, who is the unwitting instrument of the princess's downfall, when a curse is fulfilled and the princess descends into a sleeping state. The crone's only companions are a wise cat and an animate spinning wheel, portrayed here by both singers and puppets.
Those who know Respighi only by popular orchestral showpieces like "Fountains of Rome" will be surprised by this warm, subtle and skillful score, with its thick chromatic harmonies, songful melodies and good-natured parodies of everything from pompous Baroque dance to murky Wagner opera. Just listen to the shifting orchestral chords that accompany the horn call of the king's ambassador and try to anticipate the passage's surprising harmonic turns.
In this version of Charles Perrault's fairy tale by the librettist Gian Bistolfi, the princess sleeps for 300 years and awakens in the 1920's. Mr. Twist updates it slightly more, to the 1940's. A royal hunting party stumbles upon her, whereupon Prince April, a stiff-lipped yet earnest young heir, kisses her lips with restorative love. The princess and her father's entire court, who had all been put to sleep, arise and join the modern-day visitors for an impish fox trot.
Neal Goren, conducting the orchestra of the Gotham Chamber Opera and the Fuma Sacra Chamber Choir, gives a lithe and genial account of the 90-minute opera. I have only gratitude for the singers, who learned this little-known music so lovingly and who willingly let themselves be upstaged by puppets. Special praise goes to the soprano Olga Makarina as the Nightingale, the tenor Eduardo Valdes as Prince April and the soprano Nicole Heaston as the Princess.
The one drawback of the production is that the opera is performed in the original Italian, which may discourage children too young to handle English supertitles. But parents might consider taking them anyway.