Sometimes child’s play can be serious business. The Salzburg Marionette Theater, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, returned to the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Tuesday night. By contrast with their last visit, for a charming and traditional “Magic Flute” in 2005, this was a double-bill of Robert Schumann and Claude Debussy, with live music performed by pianist Orion Weiss, in an unusual concert presented by Washington Performing Arts.
Schumann’s “Papillons” tells a story from the end of Jean Paul’s novel “Flegeljahre,” slightly modified by the Salzburg puppeteers. Schumann’s two musical personalities, Eusebius and Florestan, are ingeniously matched to the story’s two brothers, the introverted Walt and the confident Vult. At a masked ball, Vult asks the puppeteers to trade his more graceful legs for Walt’s clumsy ones so that his brother can win the heart of the beautiful Wina. At the keyboard, Weiss excelled at soft-pedaled, moonstruck whimsy, while leaving something to be desired in the more bold and heroic parts. Without marionettes, two other Schumann rarities played by Weiss, “Blumenstück” and the F-sharp minor “Novelette”, mostly fell flat.
More successful was the staging of Debussy’s “La boîte à joujoux,” a ballet actually conceived by the composer for marionettes. In the hidden life of the eponymous toy box, a beautiful doll falls in love with a wooden soldier. Although threatened by the jealous and violent Polichinelle, who also loves the dancing doll, the couple live happily ever after in a shepherd’s house in the country. I had assumed that the performers would leave out the part in Debussy’s score for “Le Nègre,” the once-popular doll based on racist stereotypes also featured in “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” a piece in the composer’s beloved suite “Children’s Corner.” To my surprise, there he was, being pursued by the policeman after committing a crime.
Downey is a freelance writer.