Friday, April 9, 2010

Puppets From Bergamo Bring Out the Child In All of Us

If you think you’re too sophisticated to enjoy an old fashioned puppet show, I invite you to think again.

Isn’t it wonderful to get lost in a story? To escape the everyday, to be focused so entirely on the actions happening before your eyes that all else is temporarily forgotten? This is how it was when we were children, our eyes wide with wonder, enraptured in the moment. And this is how it was for all of us watching the puppet show Arlecchino Malato d’Amore (Arlecchino Lovesick) at NYU’s Casa Italiana on March 31, 2010.

Maria Teresa Zenoni poses with Smeraldina. Photo by Rosanne Masone.

The plot goes like this: Arlecchino loves Smeraldina but her father Pantalone rejects Arlecchino in favor of the apparently rich Marquis, whose wealth is a sham and who schemes with his deceitful servant, Brigella, to pay off his debts with Smeraldina’s dowry. Arlecchino and his faithful friend, Gioppino, expose the truth and win Pantalone’s approval and thereby, Smeraldina’s hand in marriage. Does the plot seem familiar? Of course it does. It’s just one of a host of centuries-old morality plays drawn from Italy’s rich tradition of Commedia dell’Arte.

Commedia dell’Arte developed in the mid-15th century as a form of professional improvised theater tradition incorporating characters throughout Italy. The characters are drawn from Italy’s distinct regions, towns, and dialects and over time, became stock characters such as Arlecchino, the Doctor and Pulcinella. The art of pantomime, Harlequin and England’s favorite puppet characters, Punch and Judy, all owe their beginnings to Commedia dell’Arte. Some of its plot lines found their way into opera buffa by such composers as Verdi, Rossini and Puccini.

What began as actors on a stage later branched into puppet shows on rolling carts that entertained people in virtually every Italian town. This tradition was brought to America during the great migration of the last century, and many people still recall these shows with delight, held in the streets of Brooklyn and Little Italy.

Today, master puppet maker Daniele Cortesi continues this tradition. Straight from Caravaggio in the province of Bergamo, near Milan, Italy, Cortesi and his small band of dedicated artisans traveled to New York City for a rare appearance. The colorful costumes, endearing characters, beautiful sets and universal themes captured the attention of all the children in the room, aged 1 to 100.

Brigella, Smeraldina and Arlecchino.

The sheer mechanics of the show are daunting. The stage itself had to be constructed in New York, as it was impossible to bring the Bergamo stage abroad. Each puppeteer plays multiple characters, each with different voices and mannerisms. The puppeteers are hidden, standing behind and under the stage with their arms stretched overhead with puppets on each hand. The signature slapstick of the show required precise movement and timing for comedic effect and these experts made it look effortless. To watch a short video of a performance, click here.

Daniele Cortesi describes his mastery of puppet making and performing as a mysterious calling that is difficult to explain. After studying puppet making at La Yorik di Milano, he later studied with master sculptor Natale Panaro at Il Teatro Verdi, also in Milan and Velia Mantegazza. With them, he worked on the children’s television show L’Albero Azzurro.

Carolyn Masone poses with Gioppino. Photo by Rosanne Masone.

Cortesi’s puppets exemplify distinct characters from Bergamo, and he credits his mentor maestro Benedetto Ravasio with teaching him the very best in Bergamo’s puppeteer tradition, from conception to woodworking to performing. For example, Gioppino Zuccalunga, Arlecchino’s faithful friend, is made with goiters on his neck. This is because centuries ago the citizens of Bergamo lacked sufficient amounts of the mineral iodine, causing many of them to suffer from goiters. This trait of Gioppino has remained unchanged through the centuries, as with all the Commedia dell’Arte characters.

The rich history, tradition, heart-tugging stories and hilarious comedy are what makes Commedia dell’Arte as relevant today as ever. And all of these elements are lovingly preserved by Daniele Cortesi and his troupe.

To learn more about Daniele Cortesi, including his DVD, Fuori e Dentro La Baracca, and his book, Dare l’Anima, click here.

To learn about future events at NYU’s Casa Italiana, click here.

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