The Emmett Robinson Theater was taken over by a large cast of marionettes Friday night as Colla Marionette Company, the centuries-old Italian institution, debuted the 18th Century Haydn opera Philemon and Baucis. The wooden actors were extraordinarily lifelike, each one meticulously crafted from their hand-carved bodies to their human-hair wigs and custom-made costumes. Manipulated by a talented team of puppeteers that includes fourth generation Colla family members Eugenio Monti Colla and Carlo Colla III, the show was rounded out with first-rate operatic vocals and an orchestra led by Colla Marionette’s own Danilo Lorenzini

The opera begins high in the sky where the great Roman god Jupiter, perched on his thrown of clouds, is carelessly tossing lightning bolts down to the world below. A screen drops and an orchestral interlude distracts momentarily before the screen rises up to reveal a chorus of earthly mourners kneeling outdoors and singing tribute to the dead. The screen quickly drops again. When it is lifted, the audience is taken inside the humble home of the elderly couple Philemon and Baucis.

Philemon hobbles across the stage toward his adoring wife Baucis with the slow deliberation of an aged man, and it’s easy to forget he’s a wooden marionette. The set, deftly hand-painted paper sheets that drop on either side of the stage to create layers of depth, amazes. Husband and wife come together around the table and, speaking an English translation of the German libretto, allude to a great sorrow in their lives. Their every action is emotive and lifelike. A knock at the door reveals two pilgrims — the thinly disguised Jupiter and Mercury — who Philemon and Baucis invite into their home without hesitation.

Eager to welcome the hungry pilgrims, Baucis disappears to search for food to offer the guests. While she is gone, Philemon, voiced by talented tenor Hugo Vera, breaks into song, sung in German with English subtitles. He points to the two urns reverently placed the shelf behind him as he sings his sad tale. His only child, a long-wished-for son born to him and Baucis late in life, was struck down and killed by lightning along with his new wife, an honorable maid, on their wedding day a month prior. While his bereavement runs deep, his faith in the gods does not waiver.

Baucis returns empty handed, and her failed quest for food brings her to the realization that she and Philemon are poor — something that, because of her positive faith, she did not notice until the pilgrims’ arrival caused her to look at their life from an outside perspective. Her sudden awareness triggers a beautiful song, sung by soprano Monica Yunus. Baucis’ marionette is incredibly expressive, and from the audience, where Yunus can just be seen peeking out of the pit, the synchronization between her natural movements and the marionettes manipulated movements is uncanny.

Alone with his fellow god, Jupiter, whose commanding voice is boomed from the pit by local actor Josh Wilhoit, reveals to Mercury, Spoleto veteran Curtis Worthington, that he is touched by the pious couple. Despite their poverty, they have opened up their doors to these strangers, something that no other townspeople, not even the wealthiest citizens, would do. Philemon and Baucis’ unwavering devotion renews Jupiter’s faith in humans, and he regrets throwing the lightning bolt that ultimately killed their son and daughter-in-law. Believing that no virtue should go unrewarded, Jupiter decides the best gift he can give Philemon and Buacis is to bring back their beloved son, Aret and his wife, Narcissa.

The shelf where the beautiful urns rest suddenly breaks apart to reveal a living Aret and Narcissa. Lined with vibrant flowers, the shelf creates a small, impromptu garden on stage when it collapses to the ground. Aret and Narcissa emerge, stretching and confused. Was their visit to the heavens just a dream? They reflect in a stirring duet sung by Scott Scully and Shannon Kessler Dooley.

Philemon and Baucis discover the couple with disbelief. Now sporting majestic regalia, Jupiter and Mercury return to reveal their identities and explain what has transpired. The screen drops for the final set change and ascends to reveal Jupiter’s temple, realized by a dazzling set of gilded columns and statues, complete with a full marionette chorus. Jupiter has gathered the pious Philemon, Baucis, Aret, and Narcissa alongside the greedy townsfolk, and delivers to them his message of virtue and reward.

The show concludes just under an hour after it promptly began. The curtain call includes a delightful sequence of bows where the marionettes are accompanied on stage by the live singers who voiced them. The first coupling of singer and marionette incited an audible gasp, as the seemingly life-sized marionette barely reached his corresponding actor’s thigh. Piero Corbella, the company’s general manager explains the phenomenon, disclosing that the audience sees everything realized through the perspective of the scenery and scaled down dimensions of the stage, which leads them to believe that the marionettes are the same height as them. He concludes, “What the audience sees on stage is an illusion, beautiful for both children and adults.”

While the story is a fable and, in keeping with the genre, is morally heavy-handed, the marionettes are the perfect vehicle for the tale’s delivery. Its ethical overtones would otherwise be overbearing if not for the magical intrigue of the marionettes and the rich German lyrics. From the wise gods to the humble Spoleto audience, everyone can learn something from a pious couple’s ability to remain unwaveringly faithful and grateful even in the face of great anguish.

Note: There is no late seating or intermission, so arriving on time is a must.

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.