From Music in Cincinnati

Don Quixote Strikes Again

Posted in: 2009
By Mary Ellyn Hutton
Jun 8, 2009 - 12:42:09 PM

The Boy, the Don and Master Peter (Madcap Puppet Theater, Cincinnati)
The man of La Mancha was star of the show at Sunday afternoon’s Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra concert at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.
   But were you expecting puppets?
   If you weren’t, then you were the moment you stepped into Corbett Auditorium and were met by a minaret-topped puppet theater standing stage left next to the CCO.
   It was the opening concert of “Spanish Legends,” a mini-festival of Spanish and Spanish-themed music led by CCO music director Mischa Santora.  Featured work was Spanish composer Manuel de Falla’s “Master Peter’s Puppet Show,” a genuine puppet opera based on an episode from Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.”  A co-production of the CCO, Madcap Puppet Theater and the theater department of Bowling Green State University, it was a regional premiere.
   (The second and final “Spanish Legends” will be devoted to the infamous Don Juan, with a concert performance of Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni” June 20 and 21 in Patricia Corbett Theater at CCM.)
   Puppetry is one of the oldest cultural pursuits known to mankind, and puppet opera remains a popular genre in many parts of the world.  Falla enriched the repertoire significantly with his 1923 “El Retablo de Maese Pedro,” a brilliant, half-hour work that is far too infrequently performed, perhaps both for its brevity and the out-sized resources needed to produce it.
   The CCO/Madcap/BGSU team had the talent and resources in spades, making it one of the brightest and best executed arts events to take place in Greater Cincinnati in recent memory.  Concept and direction were by international theater artist Irena Niculescu, now based in Cincinnati.  Set and puppet design were by BGSU’s Bradford Clark.  
   Also on the program were Falla’s “El amor brujo” featuring mezzo-soprano Stacey Rishoi, the Suite from “Don Quixote” by Georg Philipp Telemann and the Overture to Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” (the concert repeated without the Telemann in Anderson Center Theater Sunday evening).
   Madcap Puppeteers, Mel Douglas Hatch, Dylan Shelton, Seth Shaffer, Chris Douglas and John Lewandowski, performed as larger-than-life body puppets who participated in and watched the puppet show outside the puppet theater, and as the hands manipulating the marionettes inside the puppet theater.
   The opera, sung in Spanish, presented a problem at the outset, comprehension.  The creators wisely rejected surtitles for a facsimile-style program insert with a scene-by-scene synopsis, a detailed introduction by Santora and placards thrust slyly before the curtain of the puppet theater (“Melisandre, I am coming,” “The Rescue,” etc.).  This allowed narration by The Boy, a giant puppet with an endearing visage, to be enjoyed on a purely musical as well as dramatic level.
   Roles were sung by bass-baritone Nathan Stark (Don Quixote), tenor Daniel Anderson (Master Peter) and soprano Nicole Yazolino (The Boy) from their position stage right in front of the CCO.
    In Cervantes’ story, the Don arrives at an inn where a puppet show is about to take place.  The innkeeper (Master Peter) welcomes him and the servant boy (The Boy) narrates the show.  The plot is typical damsel-in-distress, with Charlemagne’s daughter Milesandre languishing in captivity in a Moorish castle.  Melisendra’s husband Don Gayferos prefers playing chess to rescuing his wife until the king scolds him into it.  Meanwhile, Melisandre is ogled and kissed by a naughty Moor who is flogged to bits as punishment.
   Gayferos arrives in disguise, rescues Melisandra and rides off with angry Moors in pursuit.  At this point, Don Quixote, who has lost grip of reality, draws his sword and dispatches the puppet theater, to the utter dismay of Master Peter and The Boy.
    The Don, who towered over six-foot-five-inch Santora, was given a noble Madcap presentation, strolling nonchalantly into the inn and taking his seat.  Master Peter, a giant puppet with angry, arched eyebrows, looked in now and then, sometimes chastising The Boy, who cavorted balletically in front of the theater and tended to elaborate on the story.
   The marionettes drew smiles and laughter from the audience, from Melisandra drooping despondently on her balcony to black-cloaked Gayferos on horseback and a posse of scimitar-waving Moors in hot pursuit of the escapees at the end.
   As the CCO advised in pre-concert publicity, it is not a story for children, however, with the lusty Moor flayed to death onstage and the Don slashing the marionette strings and running all of them through with his blade at the end.
   Musically, it was a revelation, since most people know Falla for his cante hondo, flamenco-influenced style (as in “The Three-Cornered Hat”).  “Master Peter” is more neo-classic, utilizing harpsichord (supposedly its first use in 20th-century music) and incorporating baroque and Renaissance idioms somewhat like Italian Ottorino Respighi in his “Ancient Airs and Dances.”  There is a heavy dose of contemporary music, too, as in Stravinsky’s neo-classic scores like “L’Histoire du Soldat.”
   The CCO rendered all of this with style and pizzazz, while the voices melded with their puppet owners’ identities beautifully.  
   For cante hondo, red-gowned Rishoi filled the bill amply in "El amor brujo" (“Love the Magician”).  Singing in a rich, guttural voice, she personified the gypsy Candelas haunted by the ghost of her dead lover.  (This reviewer remembers Rishoi for her compelling and engaging performance as Julius Caesar in the now legendary production of Handel’s“Giulio Cesare” at CCM in 1997.)
   CCO assistant conductor Kelly Kuo led a finely-tuned performance of “El amor brujo,” rich in drama and emotion, with pealing trumpets, colorful winds and lovely solo work by principal cellist Patrick Binford and assistant concertmaster Sujean Kim.
   Santora, in his element in music of the baroque, led a superb performance of Telemann’s “Don Quixote.”  String ensemble was astonishingly precise, dynamics carefully shaped and Telemann’s tone-painting carefully observed.  The Don’s sighing, Sancho Panza’s mock grandiosity, Rosinante’s galloping and Quixote’s nodding off at the end -- where Santora glanced disarmingly around at the audience -- were never so delightfully presented.
   Santora conducts Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” with baritone Corey Crider as Don Giovanni, soprano Melody Moore as Donna Anna and bass Jason Hardy as Leporello, at 7:30 p.m. June 20, 2 p.m. June 21 in Patricia Corbett Theater at CCM.  For tickets and information, call (513) 723-1182, ext.102, or visit the CCO web site at

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