Puss in Boots, (El gato con botas)
nytheatre.com review by Daniel John Kelley
October 3, 2010
The "family matinee" is a long-standing staple of most opera companies, small and large. What it generally consists of is a classic opera that is considered "kid friendly" that is typically shortened to fit neatly within what is assumed to be the average child's attention span. What is so refreshing about the New Victory's current production of Puss in Boots is that it refuses to take this cynical position on what children can "handle"—and refuses to bastardize great works in the name of it. Instead, the company has sought out an opera that is ideal for their young audience and has put considerable resources behind it—a renowned orchestra, a nationally recognized director, and an international puppet company—in order to mount the opera in a way that truly makes it exciting for young people. Opera companies take note: if you want young people to come to the opera, do something like this. When the kids who see this show grow up, I guarantee they'll be first in line for your production of Jenufa.
So what makes this production so great? First of all, let's start with the opera. Xavier Montsalvatge's Puss in Boots has two things going for it to make it incredibly accessible for young audiences: it's a familiar story and it's 70 minutes long. That said, the music is not "easy"—the score is melodic, but there are no catchy refrains and almost no repetition. This is not Yo Gabba Gabba, this is an engaging (and occasionally soaring) early 20th century score. But the fact that it's a familiar story, and that it's short, makes it ideal for young audiences—and helps expose them to the fact that "serious music" can also be incredibly entertaining (what a concept!).
A great deal of this entertainment, however, does come from the expert work of both director Moises Kaufman and the puppets of Blind Summit Theatre. Kaufman directs the evening with both the earnestness necessary for this fairy tale universe, and a delightfully arch sense of humor. A parade of puppet bunnies bouncing hilariously about to avoid capture can immediately give way to a heartfelt aria from Puss to a princess in Kaufman's seamless magical world. Blind Summit Theatre's puppets contribute to this sense of magic: Puss himself is a bunraku style puppet, operated by three puppeteers in plain site, and sung by a fourth opera singer. Thus the vocal acrobatics of mezzo-soprano Leah Wool as Puss compliment and enhance the physical acrobatics of the puppet Puss, allowing the puppeteers to soar Puss through the air, while Wool soars up to a high note. The most incredible performance of all, however, comes from the puppet character of the Ogre, voiced by the solid bass Kevin Burdette. The incredible transformation the Ogre goes through really have to be seen to be believed—from Ogre to Lion to Parrot to Rat, and all in a few moments!
Ultimately, Puss in Boots succeeds because it does two essential things: it both gives its young audience what it wants, and challenges it to experience something greater. It's fun, and magical and hilarious—and at the same time, it's an honest-to-God opera, done in full, with strong voices and a strong orchestra. I honestly can't think of a better introduction to opera for a child—so please, by all means, take your small child, or your friend's small child, or really even have a child between now and Sunday, and then take them to see Puss In Boots.