The best-known Italian puppet, Pinocchio, may not be among the 165 handcrafted marionettes performing at the Emmett Robinson Theater beginning today. But with “Sleeping Beauty,” the real-life Geppettos of the Carlo Colla and Sons Marionette Company have dusted off another fairy tale best known to American audiences through the Walt Disney film.
The Milan-based troupe, which dates back to the 18th century, first came to Spoleto Festival USA in 1987. Since then, it has returned with marionette performances of “Cinderella,” the opera “Philemon and Baucis” and “Around the World in 80 Days.”
Piero Corbella, manager at Carlo Colla and Sons, first came to the Milan-based company when he was 12 and has never looked back.
“The tradition of marionette theater in Italy is not about a single role,” Corbella said. “You are not just a puppeteer. You work on stage, you carve the marionettes, you make wigs, you do everything.”
Besides being the manager of 13 puppeteers, Corbella is deeply involved with the handling of the “Sleeping Beauty” marionettes when they’re on stage.
Besides being company manager, Corbella is one of the puppeteers.
“I move lots of characters on stage, the cooks and servants, but especially Sylphs, the servant of the fairy Harmony,” he said.
The marionette tradition began to flourish in Italy in the 18th century, around the same time as the beginnings of Carlo Colla and Sons. With time, various changes were seen in the techniques, ranging from the wood used to hold the marionettes to the weight of the puppet. Corbella said the puppeteer originally held in his hand a single piece of wood, with the strings attached to the head, legs and other body parts.
Things began to change toward the end of the 19th century as the single piece of wood became a cross, with more strings to move different body parts in various combinations Soon nearly all marionettes began to move their mouths and speak.
Kurt Hunter, a Minneapolis-based marionette artist who has been working with wooden puppets for almost 40 years, explained the techniques used to handle the marionettes after seeing a recording of Carlo Colla and Sons’ “Sleeping Beauty.” “The American style of control is horizontal, while the European style is vertical,” he said. “Picture the wooden cross used to hold the marionettes. If that is parallel to the ground, it is American, and if it’s perpendicular to the ground, it is European.”
From the looks of the video, Hunter said, the “Sleeping Beauty” performance is horizontal despite originating in Italy. Also, he said, “Some movements are naturalistic, attempting to imitate human movement, while others are exaggerated, closer to cartoon movement.”
“Sleeping Beauty” is a combination of the old and new, with costumes designed with sketches from 1926 and movement methods from the 19th century.
Carlo Colla and Sons’ repertoire includes fables, ballets, operas and even novels. And the company comes back to Charleston as often as they can for the festival.
“There are only two places in the world, when we go, it is like being at home,” Corbella said. “They are connected because they are Spoleto in Italy and Spoleto in Charleston. Marionettes enchant and delight people, and our company wants to do the same.”
Ishani Chatterji is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.