Sicily is a land of strong traditions, which makes sense if you think about it. A people that has been conquered this many times is bound to hold on to old habits as the only constant in their lives.
One of those traditions is marionette theater, or the Opera dei Pupi. The tradition of the Opera dei Pupi started in Sicily more than 600 years ago simultaneously in Palermo and Catania. Since the Kingdom of Sicily was a maritime power at the time, the tradition spread to other ports of Venice, Naples, and so on.
The stories told have varied over the years of course. Early on, tales of King Roger of Sicily were popular, as well as episodes from the tales of Charlemagne and his knights. They even branched into local folklore, heroes, and politics, but those tales are rarely told today.
We had heard stories about puppet theater in Sicily, mainly that the battles can be pretty epic. Usually on the Western side of the Island, the focus is more on the love story, the drama, and so on. On the Eastern coast, it’s all about the battles, with dead puppets lying everywhere after a major battle.
Based on that alone, we knew we had to check it out.
Back in our old “hometown” of Ortigia we knew of a puppet theater called Teatro dei Pupi. We’d walked past several times but never seen a show; today would be different. Our show would follow Orlando, one of Charlemagne’s knights, on his journey to find Angelica.
We picked up Orlando onboard a ship with Olimpia and King Oberto of Ireland on a sea voyage to the Kingdom of Holland. I’m not 100% on my knowledge of the tales of Charlemagne, but I think Olimpia’s husband Bireno was ruling over Holland, but she was the rightful ruler. Bireno had been bewitched and deceived the people that their queen was dead. Anyway, the key operative phrase here is “fierce battle”, which definitely ensued, after Orlando had fought a sea monster (while in a rowboat; this guy has some good balance) and an angry, club-wielding mob.
And the battle truly was epic. King Oberto fought bravely against the soldiers from Holland, to prove his valor to Olimpia. Puppet after puppet fell to his sword, and one even lost his head! In the end, he was victorious, he and Olimpia fell in love, but then the story ended with a cliffhanger at the end, so we’d be sure to come back and see the next one!
The detail on the marionettes was absolutely amazing. Made of wood, they were beautifully clothed and well armored, and they clanked on and off stage like real knights might.
Well, how they would if they were 18 inches tall, anyway.
Orlando had his trademark curved sword that he had taken from a defeated Saracen, a classic villain in Sicilian puppet theater since the tradition started after the Saracens (Moors) had been kicked out of Sicily by the Norman King Roger.
The thing that struck me was how lifelike their movements were. The whole show was in Italian (of course), complete with all the gestures and movements that an Italian conversation might come with. I was truly amazed at how lifelike they were.
I didn’t take a lot of pictures since the room was dark and I didn’t want to be that tourist, but it was absolutely worth every minute and every penny. If you ever find yourself with the opportunity to see a Sicilian-style puppet show, don’t even think twice. Do it!