Opera for puppets charms at Spoleto

Those of us whose jobs demand that we produce whatever the boss calls for should anoint Joseph Haydn as our patron saint.

Late in his life, a London impresario hired him to write some of the symphonies that have made him immortal. For much of Haydn's career, though, he earned his main income as the court composer to a Hungarian noble family. Whenever the goings-on around the palace needed music, Haydn had to deliver it.

Apparently - to judge from opening night of Spoleto Festival USA - Haydn did his best even when the situation couldn't have seemed conducive to his personal glory. I wonder if many of us can say that.

How much of a shelf life could Haydn have expected an opera for puppets to have? The palace had a puppet theater, though, and it needed fodder. So Haydn went to work.

Lo and behold: "Philemon and Baucis," despite 200-plus years of neglect, is a charmer. Its scale is modest. But the lilting tunes, mellifluous tones and flashes of originality that flavor Haydn's better-known music appear here, too.

The story comes from mythology. The gods Jupiter and Mercury visit earth disguised as humble pilgrims. They're appalled by how unkindly humans treat them - until they come to the home of a poor, elderly couple, Philemon and Baucis. Without hesitating, the two open up their home and their dinner table to the strangers. And this, despite the fact that the couple could easily be bitter about life: Not only are they poor, but their only son and his wife have been struck dead by lightning.

You guessed it: The gods reward Philemon and Baucis by bringing the kids back to life. And the sincerity and sweetness of Haydn's musical storytelling reward the audience.

Mellifluous tunes capture Philemon and Baucis' good-heartedness. The music takes on twinges of melancholy when they describe their sorrows. The happy ending is catchy and bright. Amid it all, the gem is the little aria that the couple's son sings when he's awakened from death. A plaintive tune from the oboe shares the spotlight with the singer; plucked strings lend the air of a pensive serenade; the French horns intone chords in the background. If this were transplanted into one of Haydn's masses or oratorios, it would hold up.

Spoleto puts all this into a cozy theater at the College of Charleston. The Colla Marionettes, a regular guest from Italy, are onstage. Four singers, two actors - for the speaking roles of Jupiter and Mercury - and a chamber orchestra perform in the pit.

The marionettes, about half life-sized, are more animated than some flesh-and-blood opera performers I've seen. During the overture, the puppets set the stage with a procession of deities - including gods and monsters from the underworld. Once the story proper begins, the sets are evocative, the puppets expressive and the human performances spirited.