Don’t call them just marionettes! The Sicilian ‘opera dei pupi’ (Puppet Opera) is a sort of monument that perfectly describes a centuries-old tradition that takes you back in time. It’s time for music and duels, folks! The stories and the legends of the paladins of France live again on the stage. From Orlando to Charlemagne, the skilled hands of the puppeteers create the magic.
The Sicilian puppet opera came about in Palermo during the late eighteenth century and then, in the following centuries, reached Naples and other parts of the island. After World War II, unfortunately, this art gradually lost its appeal and stayed alive only in the hearts (and workers) of a few families who still preserve their knowledge and bring these shows around the world.
Here is a tidbit: Unesco included the puppet opera among the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2008, a sincere pride for Italy.
Puppets, who are they?
Colorful, decorated with creativity and originality, and wearing the armor that every paladin deserves, of course. Here they are, the Sicilian puppets.Although they apparently look similar, there are some differences. The puppets made in Palermo, for example, are generally lighter and therefore simpler to move. They are more flexible than those from Catania that, on the contrary, are characterized by fixed limbs.Who are the protagonists of the puppet opera? The main characters are Orlando, from the homonymous ‘Orlando furioso’ by Ludovico Ariosto, the beautiful princess Angelica, Rinaldo, Ruggero and so on, each of them has a personal style and cloak. The best-known paladins are often accompanied by Peppininu, he’s the squire of Rinaldo and Orlando as well as a popular folkloristic character from Catania. But this is really a curiosity for the experts of this genre!
Every puppet show involves a careful study as the puppeteer does not just give life to the characters. He is the artistic director, prepares the scripts, checks that the sets are made properly, pay attention to the voice so that each character has their own identity. In the past, the puppeteer knew these epic tales by heart! We are talking about popular masterpiece such as ‘Gerusalemme liberata’ and ‘Chanson de Roland’. Moreover, the puppeteer is the soul of the show, he’s the one who must be able to give pathos, to truly entertain the audience…he is the magician of the scene.At the end of the performance, sometimes they also add an ‘out of script’. Following the tradition, they can insert a farce based on Sicilian folkloristic puppets, something funny and sometimes licentious in order not to make people stop laughing.
The puppet opera is alive
Nowadays, is there still room for Sicilian puppets? The answer is yes! And we should shout it out loud because it is one of the most interesting faces of Sicily that has not to vanish in the frenzy of modernity. We are not talking about trivial attractions for tourists but about a unique treasure that everyone should know, first and foremost the Sicilians! Those who live in Palermo or visit the city should put in their bucket list both a stop at the Antonio Pasqualino International Puppet Museum close to Piazza Marina and at the Giuseppe Pitré Sicilian Ethnographic Museum, next to the Chinese Palace. Moreover, in Caltagirone the Sicilian puppet theater-museum survives in via Verdumai, and in Alcamo, in the province of Trapani, the puppet theater founded by Salvatore Oliveri is based inside the castle of the counts of Modica where many shows take place during the year.
The curtain falls!