On May 4, some of the performers who will bring “Il Matrimonio Segreto” to this year’s Spoleto Festival were on a ship that docked in Savannah, Ga. The diminutive Italian figures had traveled in the cramped interior of a 40-foot shipping container from Milan, through the Mediterranean, across the Atlantic, and to the Southeast of the United State. How did they survive such an arduous and cramped journey? It helps that they are made of wood.
The Carlo Colla & Sons Marionette Company, founded in 1835, has been performing Domenico Cimarosa’s comic opera with a cast of hand-carved marionettes since the second half of the 19th century. With the help of the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra and members of the Westminster Choir, the Colla Company will present a new version of the opera at this year’s Spoleto Festival.
Soprano Margaret Bergmark will sing the part of Carolina, one of two sisters who partake in the opera’s farcical marriage plot. Bergmark studied the part of Elisetta, Carolina’s sister, during a trip to Italy organized by Oberlin College, and is looking forward to engaging with the material in a new role.
“The Italian is old, and not what you would typically read today,” Bergmark said. “And the characters are so funny.”
Piero Corbella, Colla Company manager and puppeteer, said the version that the company traditionally has performed replaced much of the opera's dialogue with marionette movement, while preserving the most important arias and choruses. This production is a more complete version, with restored recitatives.
“It’s like a new production for us,” Corbella said.
Because the Colla Company is based in Milan, where the puppeteers themselves hand-craft each marionette and all of their sets, they sent all the materials and puppets to the U.S. on a container ship a month ago so company members had time to piece it all together.
While the marionettes traveled across the sea, the musicians were preparing their parts. Violist Ericka Schwartz, in her second year with the Spoleto orchestra, said she savors the opportunity to accompany opera singers.
“It’s a good educational experience for us, because when you hear a singer sing, it can inspire how you might do your own phrasing a little more naturally,” Schwartz said. With the marionettes taking the place of the singers on the stage, Schwartz is curious to see how all three groups will coordinate their various parts.
Watching the musicians work out this new arrangement is one of Corbella’s favorite aspects of a Spoleto appearance. During the first rehearsal, the singers tend to be focused on their own parts.
“But after the first day, they begin to look at what is happening on the stage,” Corbella said. “For them, it’s amazing to see the marionette move while they are singing.”
As for the marionettes, Corbella claims they, too, have souls.
“Sometimes you want to move the marionette, but the marionette doesn’t want to do the move,” he said.
Fortunately for Spoleto audiences, the marionettes performing “Il Matrimonio Segreto” are as prepared for their parts as the musicians who will help bring them alive.
Isaac Napell is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.