Within minutes of the curtain lifting on il matrimonio segreto, you may forget that you’re watching wooden marionettes no more than three-feet tall. The scale of the design, the quality of the puppets, and most importantly, the skilled puppeteers working high above the stage, all combine to fool the eyes.
Il matrimonio segreto takes viewers back in time, when the combination of a live symphony and opera singers, elaborate puppets and stage design and a compelling story were the pinnacle of entertainment. This human-mimicking art form has been around for centuries — the puppets are the AI-powered Westworld humans of their day. Of course, there are also reasons a marionette opera is uncommon today: 1) it’s a lot of work to create, 2) television, and 3) opera — to most people at least — can be boring.
This performance — presented by the centuries-old Carlo Colla Sons Marionette Company — has a tendency to repeat the same lines over and over during the song segments, slowing down the story’s development. It’s also a pain point that the English subtitles are positioned well above the miniaturized stage. Watching the puppets’ lifelike movement is such a joy that following the storyline requires a constant up-and-down eyeball yoga effort.
But these are minor quibbles. The score performed by the 10-piece orchestra, highlighted by the dual violins of Emily Anderson and Eva Dove, is dynamic and compelling, even if it weren’t paired with gorgeous, intricate sets, mood-setting stage lighting and impressive opera singing from members of the Westminster Choir. Matthew Marinelli shines, in particular, as the voice of family patriarch Geronimo, as well as Margaret Bergmark as Carolina, the female half of the “secret marriage.”
In the story, set in 18th-century Bologna, a father (Geronimo) promises his daughter (Elisetta) to a wealthy count. The Count prefers the younger sister (Carolina), but she’s already secretly married to her father’s friend and aide, Paolino. Geronimo’s sister is also in love with Paolino, creating a sticky situation for all parties involved. The Count’s puppeteer conveys pomp and presence in his character’s stride. Paolino’s tenderness toward Carolina is shown through subtle touch, while the Count and Geronimo each exhibit restless leg syndrome during a tense exchange. Of course, the dramatic hand and arm gestures puppets make works perfectly for a story set in Italy, where communication has as much to do with body language as with spoken words.
Although the story drags at times, this isn’t Carmen. It’s a comedy. The humor isn’t laugh-out-loud funny in today’s context, but the mostly elderly crowd chuckled throughout the performance. Even if the story weren’t compelling, which it is, il matrimonio segreto is worth attending for the music, the visual beauty, and the staggering way that it all syncs together, with puppets moving in perfect coordination with their operatic vocals.
Il matrimonio’s combination of art forms was once the pinnacle of entertainment. An opera of marionettes may not be cutting edge in 2018, but think of it as the hit Netflix show of its time. Absorb it in that context, or just soak up the multiple layers of surface-level beauty.