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All contents are Copyright © 2006-2013 John M Blundall and Stephen Foster or is part of The John M Blundall Collection unless stated otherwise.

Podrecca’s Piccoli

Podrecca’s Piccoli was recognised as the most spectacular, innovative and inspirational marionette theatre in the world. The company was founded by Vittorio Podrecca in 1914, in Rome, where it became one of the most important and popular theatres. His intention was to develop a marionette theatre different to the puppet theatres in Italy at the time.

Podrecca was a great intellect with a background as a lawyer, journalist, impresario and publisher. He was also editor of the arts magazine ‘Primavera’. He secured the skills of some of the most distinguished artists of the time to create designs for his theatre, including Prampolini and Depero, two of the leading personalities of The Futurist Movement. The first theatre production of the Futurists, ‘A Marionette Ballet’, with figures designed by Depero was performed in Podrecca’s theatre.

His love of opera also attracted numerous major composers to write original music for his productions. Podrecca saw puppets as instruments. Respighi wrote his opera The Sleeping Beauty for him. Other operas performed included the works of Rossini, Donizetti, Pergolesi, Mozart, Purcell and Gluck. Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, was also performed by the company.

In 1922 the success of Podrecca’s Piccoli  led to a worldwide tour that lasted for many years, travelling through some thirty countries. The first major date was a lengthy season at the London Coliseum in 1923. Harry Whanslaw was a regular visitor and he made numerous drawings of aspects of the company and its work, and was much inspired by what he saw. The ensuing tour took the company to many parts of the world, with one of the highlights, a three month season in Paris. Podrecca was awarded the prestigious Legion of Honour, in 1929.

The company consisted of some 30 staff, including an orchestra, actors and singers, tons of equipment, including some eight hundred puppets and three hundred stage settings. The puppeteers were drawn from generations of Italian masters of the art.

Podrecca and his company was praised by many of the greatest personalities of the theatre and film, Charlie  Chaplin declared, ‘No one has ever enjoyed this charming show as much as I did’. Disney described the show as, ’Pure Magic‘. George Bernard Shaw said that it was ‘preferable to real live, flesh and blood actors‘, some of the personalities, including Garbo, Maurice Chevalier, Toscanini, and Josephine Baker were portrayed as marionettes in the programmes.

Podrecca took ideas for new works from the countries that the company toured to, but one of the most popular was ‘Varieties‘. This was a production that featured paradise on operas, portrait figures of leading personalities; one item featured Pavlov’s ‘Dying Swan’. It was the series of  ‘fantoccini’ and circus and variety type items that had a great influence on puppeteers in many parts of the world, not the least the UK, where the pianist, Maestro Piccolovsky, and opera singer, Sinforosa Strangolini, with the heaving bosom, or the stretching neck, were some of the most copied items. In Podrecca’s version, her neck, as long as the figures body, reached heights on the excruciating top notes that led the stage manager trying to drag her off stage with the aid of a walking stick, the failure of this, saw the stage manager running on stage, grabbing her by the neck, and running of with her.

Vittorio Podrecca died in Geneva in July 1959. The Piccoli tried to survive without him, and in 1964 the company disbanded. One of the last tours was here in the UK. It started at The Victoria Palace, London, subsequent dates were very poorly attended, and slowly the scale of the company, the marionettes and the fit-up were reduced. They frequently played to as few as 30 audience numbers in major theatres.

I never met Vittorio Podrecca himself, but I did become very friendly with Lia Podrecca, his wife - a former West End singer and dancer - and his son Farinelli, manager of the company. I well remember sitting with Lia backstage at the Victoria Palace, she was saddened by the small audiences there, and said, ‘Johnny, why is it, that for so many years we played to audiences all over the world -now look at it’. Many hours were spent watching their extraordinary performances, even working with some of the marionettes. It was a great experience. Now in my collection there are numerous treasured items, including a fine photograph signed by him, and their portrait marionette of Pavlova, in one of her famous roles ‘Papilion’.

Podrecca was one of the members of the Executive Committee of UNIMA.

John Blundall

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