I confess that I used to think of puppets as a fun diversion for children — but not at the Amsterdam Marionette Theatre. I happened to bumble into the wide alley where it’s located, and the poster I saw was so compelling that I decided to investigate further. Mozart? Really? I knew it would be in Dutch, of course, but how complex could the story line be? The main thing was to hear the music and enjoy the visual spectacle.
After reserving tickets online, we arrived 20 minutes early — but after the aficionados, who had long since occupied their tables and were sipping their wine and tea. A wise strategy, because the seating area is level, and the first row is quite rightly reserved for children and their parents. The rest of us were grouped around tables for 4, and positioning ourselves politely but assertively to see the small, somewhat elevated stage. Next time we’ll come earlier, as should you if you go.
What we stumbled into is an art form that dates back indirectly to the 16th century, when nomadic performers brought this form of theatre throughout central Europe, and directly to the 18th century, when the likes of Haydn composed music specifically to be performed with marionettes. It turns out that the opera singers of the day weren’t always great actors — but the marionettes were.
As we waited for the performance of an adapted version Mozart’s comedy “The Impresario” to begin, we learned that all the music was recorded only on original instruments, by a specific orchestra assembled for this theatre, and opera singers who work with them. When they tour around the world, which they do regularly, the musicians and singers accompany them, but for the repeated performances in Amsterdam they understandably use recordings.
They don’t allow photography during the performance, but frankly it wouldn’t tell you much. It’s the absolute magic of scenery as carefully constructed as the Metropolitan Opera’s, and the movement of figures just as carefully carved, painted, and clothed in exquisite garments. Technically speaking, the star of the show to me was a frou-frou poodle which could raise its ears separately or together, of course wag its tail and prance or jump or shake its head. The opening scene in which the impresario, Frank, is confronted with the extent of his bills had us weeping with laughter — not to mention the classic duel of the sopranos.
At the end, as a curtain call, they let us all crowd up to the edge of the stage and see the amazing art of the six people overhead, out of sight, each controlling a marionette or sometimes two, moving around each other with unbelievable deftness. We could even see the intricate embroidery on our hero’s waistcoat.
Like so many good things in Amsterdam, this wonderfully successful and delightful enterprise is run by eccentrics. The founder, Hendrik Bonneur, is a retired clinical psychologist who studied with the Aicher family of Salzburg, one of two families in Europe who have practiced this art for generations. If you can possibly go, do. It will open your eyes, whether or not you have a child you can drag along.