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Pulling strings to entertain

October 28, 2006|Lynne Heffley | Times Staff Writer

The string section steals the show -- and that's not a bad thing. At least not when the strings are attached to the exquisite Salzburg Marionettes, here for a four-day, two-show tour at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

In the center's new Samueli Theater, the venerable company from Mozart's birthplace in Austria opened Thursday with "The Magic Flute," a breathtaking bit of enchantment it first produced in 1950. The tour winds up today and Sunday with Engelbert Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel."

Created by Geza Rech, Mozart's "The Magic Flute" is considered the company's signature work. This abbreviated version (purists beware) is performed by marionettes who "sing" in German to a vintage Deutsche Grammophon recording conducted by Ferenc Fricsay, featuring Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as comic half-bird, half-man Papageno and coloratura Rita Streich as the evil Queen of the Night.

Between arias, spoken dialogue in English is performed by members of the Salzburg Playhouse Company. (Gerhard Schondorfer is credited with the essential sound design.)

The singers on stage can't move their painted mouths or eyes, yet they are manipulated by the puppeteers with such skill, lighted so cleverly by Harald Alker and dressed so cunningly and sumptuously by costume designer Friedl Aicher that at times they seem to do both -- and breathe besides.

Emotions are conveyed in the turn and droop of a head, lifted arms, dipped shoulders, clasped hands. Prince Tamino draws Princess Pamina to him with notable tenderness. She conveys despair in the graceful fall of a hand and seems to truly cling to him as they brave their trials of fire and water.

Papageno is alive in quick gestures and droll hops; he and feathery soul mate Papagena frisk and frolic in an embodiment of comic joy. In one visually stunning scene, the majestic High Priest of Isis and his fellows lift long horns to their mouths and sound them in stately unison.

But -- the Queen of the Night's glittering glamour aside -- the showstopper is a marvelous menagerie attracted by Tamino's flute: penguins, a pelican, a flamingo, an elephant, a towering giraffe, a lion. So beguiled are they: The giraffe lowers its head to receive a kiss from the elephant's trunk; the pelican obliges the lion with a good scratch. The lion, less obliging, snaps at some tail feathers.

Marionette sculptor Josef Magnus designed these wonders. The world they inhabit, with set designer Gunther Schneider-Siemssen's fantastical sand-scapes, pyramids, twisted trees and foreboding caverns, is scaled small to accommodate performers who average 2 feet to 3 feet in height. If you're catching "Hansel and Gretel," bring binoculars to fully appreciate the craftsmanship.

The only flaw on Thursday could have been the result of the new theater's resonant acoustics or misplaced miking. Backstage thuds, footsteps, and set-dragging could be heard. It's a tribute to the otherworldly charm of the diminutive performers that they survived the intermittent distractions, spell unbroken.


Salzburg Marionettes

Where: Samueli Theater, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 615 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: "Hansel and Gretel," 2 and 7:30 p.m. today and 2 p.m. Sunday)

Ends: Sunday

Price: $65

Contact: (714) 556-2787,

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

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