The green wooden door in via Bara all’Olivella is still closed. It might resemble a handicraft shop, like others in this alley if there were no chivalric scenes painted on the bottom and the sign on the top that reads “Opera dei Pupi, teatro fondato nel 1973 da Mimmo Cuticchio” that is “Opera dei Pupi a theater founded in 1973 by Mimmo Cuticchio.”
A blond, blue-eyed woman opens the door; «Have you booked?», she asks.
I didn’t. And there isn’t another show until the next weekend.
I had planned a typical tour in Palermo: markets, street food, sightseeing, and sea. Then, I found out there was a show at the Opera dei Pupi, a few hours after my arrival.
The Opera dei Pupi is a puppet show typical of Sicily. Characters and themes are those of chivalry novels and poems like the Matter of France or the Gerusalemme Liberata. It is such an important tradition that, in 2008, UNESCO inscribed the Opera dei Pupi in the Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists.
Not many of those who visit Sicily know what Opera dei Pupi is, but knight puppets are among the most popular souvenirs on the island.
Unlike those for tourists, puppets used in shows are large and have specific features; armors, movements, and size vary between Palermo and Catania. Catania’s puppets can be one and a half meters high and weigh up to thirty kilos: almost like a little boy. Palermo’s ones are slightly smaller and lighter.
Few companies still perform puppet shows according to the traditional principles, and Mimmo Cuticchio and his family are one of the most emblematic.
«I don’t know if there are any seats left. You have to wait for my colleague». The blue-eyed woman talks to a French couple that, like me, is waiting outside the green door. She says this evening’s play is an episode from the Orlando Furioso.
Nowadays, shows are performed only on weekends, and stories have fewer episodes than in the past. When puppet theater was one of Palermo’s favorite amusements, a cycle of stories could last over a year.
«Our grandparents attended the shows almost two hours every day. They came back every season, memorizing poems and lines of the show. They identified themselves with the heroes; they dreamed of being knights».
Finally, her colleague arrives; dark eyes, gray hair still with some shades of deep black: «Stay in line» she admonishes, «The theatre is small, but there is plenty of room for everyone».
There are people from different nationalities around me: Korean, English, French, and American. They are all here to attend a show in Sicilian dialect, a language that’s hard to understand even for an Italian.
In a short time, the queue increases and winds along the alley. Those who have booked to the right; the others to the left. Many have booked, and I’m worried I can’t get in.
«There’s room for everyone!», the gray-haired woman repeats as if she has read my mind. A few minutes later, I’m inside.
The hall is quite small. A row of decorated wooden benches lays in front of a stage proportional to the size of the “actors”. Hand-painted canvases with chivalrous episodes hang on the walls.
The lights dim and a pianola starts playing.
When the curtain rises, the stage resembles an actual opera theater: painted flats and backdrops suited for rapid scene changes.
The piece is Rinaldo saves Angelica from the Orca. The representation is full of magic, humor, and passion. It’s like living a fairytale up to the point you forget you’re watching puppets. There are scenes of love, adventure, and duels. The rumble of the battle is emphasized by a gloomy knocking, like an earthquake, perhaps foot tapping on wooden planks.
The blue-eyed woman at the entrance said: «The Opera dei pupi is not intended for children. For the sake of accuracy, it is a show for adult males». Now it is evident what she meant. In the final scene, Rinaldo fights against the Saracens that charge him in dozens. The hero cuts them in half, blows their head, mutilates their limbs until the pieces grow a huge pile of corpses. Movements are breathtaking. Apparently stiff, the puppets can draw the sword, ride imaginary creatures, kneel before his beloved, and even mimic exaggerated poses of archaic-style theatre.
The hero wins, but the story ends on a cliffhanger. Unfortunately, I won’t be here for the next weekend’s episode; but the magic is not over yet.
While the audience goes crazy, enormous legs appear on the stage, then arms, and finally heads, like a Giants’ invasion. They are the puppeteers that come to take applauses together with their “actors”. While dismantling the scene, they answer to questions from adults and children.
Out of the theater, the real world now looks unreal. The enchantment of puppets still pervades me.
People pass by. A British woman accidentally looks at the sign over the door and states: “Ah, Opera … It should be an opera theater!”. Close to her, a young Sicilian male turns to her girlfriend and shout mockingly: «I can’t believe it! Adults still going to a puppet show!».
I almost feel sorry for him, who can’t imagine what a precious little world is hiding behind that green door in via Bara all’Olivella.