“I don’t have dreams – I just want to be full,” the puppet sings, turning his pleading, extraordinarily expressive eyes towards the audience. He is Tarrare, “The Gentleman Glutton,” the real-life historical freak show performer turned French revolutionary spy with a singular digestive system and an enormous appetite for everything from handkerchiefs to animals. But despite the title character’s endless quest for satiation, The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak itself is filled to the brim. Overflowing with exquisite puppetry and music, bursting with brilliant performances, and rich in emotion and surprisingly powerful characterization, this creepy, heartbreaking chamber opera is a stunning feast for the eyes and ears.

Created by the Bristol-based puppet company Wattle and Daub, Tarrare’s haunting, occasionally gruesome story emerges through the work of six magnificent performers: two puppeteers, two singers, and two musicians (An-Ting Chang, who is also the musical director, on piano and Katy Rowe on violin). Under the meticulous direction of Sita Calvert-Ennals, puppeteers Tobi Poster (Wattle and Daub’s co-artistic director) and Aya Nakamura manipulate – or, rather, lend life to – more than twenty puppets across the stage with an astonishing realism in both the puppeteers’ movements and the artistry of the puppets themselves (Laura Purcell-Gates, Wattle and Daub’s other co-artistic director, is the lead puppet designer). When Poster, whose pained sympathetic face hovers behind his puppet throughout the show, gasps violently for breath as Tarrare tries to expunge himself of what he has consumed, the anguish is palpable.

Tarrare’s aforementioned eyes, in contrast with the hollow sockets of most of his onstage puppet companions, are perhaps the most riveting element of the puppet design, seeming alternately to capture despair, hope, fear, and joy without actually ever changing shape. Close runner-ups, though, include a witty staging (that then turns tragic) of a pair of conjoined twins that Tarrare encounters backstage at the sideshow, and a running gag which somehow never gets old involving puppets conducting the music.

That music, composed by Poster’s brother Tom, perfectly matches the visual world created on the stage of the cavernous Wilton’s Music Hall. (Tobi Poster also provides the simple but evocative lyrics.) The score draws more heavily from musical theatre than from opera, but the warm, expansive contours are often coloured with disturbing dissonances that reference the piece’s dark underbelly even in its lighter moments. Tom Poster’s gift for melody is served best in the soaring arias given to Tarrare and to each of the twins (one of whom loves Tarrare as he is, despite his dangerously ravenous habits), and slightly less well in the more harmonically predictable numbers in which both a curious doctor and a French general attempt to lure Tarrare to their causes. Poster writes especially well for the violin, and the cathartic violin-driven underscoring for the show’s most beautifully staged scene, a wordless respite from the darkness deep into the second act, stands out even within the all-around excellent score.

The singing voices of all the puppets are provided by two versatile onstage singers, Michael Longden and Daniel Harlock, both of whom frequently tap into their soprano ranges with stirring effect. Longden’s diction could be crisper in the doctor’s opening aria, but he toggles impressively back and forth between the bass of the general and the soprano of Celeste (one of the twins) during a rousing two-singer, three-voice counterpoint moment. Harlock is particularly touching in the fragile falsetto of Tarrare, but he gets a chance to exhibit his strong tenor voice as well.

What the Poster brothers do best of all, with the help of Calvert-Ennals, is sculpting a story that can confidently move in the blink of an eye (not that Tarrare has eyelids) from coarse humour to deeply felt sorrow, that carries the audience right along with it. The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak strongly pushes its audience to embrace Tarrare, to see him as deserving of respect and love regardless of how other characters may treat him. The central beauty of this opera may be that it makes the recognition of our shared humanity with those who are different from us seem like it should be remarkably easy. After all, if the audience can fall in love with a puppet, how hard can it be to embrace one another?

The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak is playing at Wilton’s Music Hall until February 18.

Photo: Barney Witts