Kim Meets World

A blog raveled in randomness

S1E5: Thoughts on ‘Don Giovani’

Official production photo

Official production photo

May 12, 2013

I enjoyed the marionette version of Mozart’s opera masterpiece “Don Giovanni” at the National Marionette Theater in Prague. As a child grown in a generation of television and mass media entertainment, I was afraid that I would not fully appreciate a marionette performance. However like any other modern performances I have seen so far, the unique marionette performance also applied similar aspects of lighting, music as well as human performers (mainly their hands). The dramatized hand motions and the nimble movements of the wooden puppets brought laughter to the young and the old. A universal language was achieved in the small old theater as the audience did not understand the foreign language of Mozart’s opera. The performers perfectly executed their exact movement on and off stage to bring smiles upon the endangered entertainment medium of marionette performances. It was definitely a unique experience for me.

Official production photo

Official production photo

The only negative thing I could think of is that the opera music itself was not live. If the theater was bigger and had a bigger audience, then it would have been a grander and more lively performance with an actual orchestra with opera singers. Other than the prerecorded opera music, everyone in the staff of this production has done a great job in performing a simple yet sophisticated control over those intricate puppets. The show starts with the appearance of Mozart from the orchestra pit. The puppet conducts and the music commences. The miniaturized red curtains veil the actual stage, and the introduction sets the audience into the timeline of Mozart. Even though the marionette stage seems small, the setting of the orchestra pit for Mozart and the stage for the actual “Don Giovanni” performance helped me experience a live show produced by Mozart himself. Furthermore Mozart appeared often in between scenes after the curtains closed as if giving time for marionettes to change. Mozart had small comical acts, which made one little kid in front of me laugh very hard (his laugh was so cute!). Mozart came from the orchestra with a champagne glass and accidentally throws water at the audience. I was on the third row, so I did not get wet, but it was still very entertaining to see a musical prodigy drunk during his working hours!

Other than the fabulous costumes the marionettes wore for the performance, the old-school ways of rolling down drawn backgrounds and placing cardboard drawings of a crowd reminded me of simplistic modes of performing art. But do not belittle this marionette opera for this aspect because it also contained complicated decorations for each setting. Water poured down on stage as white flashes imitated the frightening thunders on a rainy day.When Don Giovanni was hanging from a chandelier at the party, four different light colors interchanged at various angles to give an illusory effect of morphing shadows in the room from the swaying chandelier. And I cannot forget about the hand movements of the human performers controlling the marionettes!

There are numerous hands above the stage and you can see for yourself how fast these hands can move! When the marionettes are dancing and twirling at the party, the hands are swiftly turning the puppets at a constant pace that I was surprised by how the wooden sticks controlling the small puppet did not slip from their hands. Small details such as the marionette going upstairs one foot at a time contained finger motions quickly pulling the strings, which made me wonder how many hours of practice was needed to perfect it? The marionettes can also jump onto laps without entangled strings; it can bring a small plate of food onto a table without spilling; can jump over gates without limbs being tangled into the strings; and they can dance while holding hands. These numerous details done by the marionettes (controlled by the human performers) seem simple but when you observe their fingers and hand motions, you are convinced that those small movements are backed up by hard practices. Most interestingly, the performers do not hide their hands but they add their hand motions as part of the stage act. They flutter their hands like a butterfly when putting the cardboard drawing of the crowd on stage, and when a cloak of a marionette was caught on the strings, the man untangled it and swirled his hand to exit upwards. When picking up fallen marionettes, the hands would appear with a stick to bring the puppets back into their hands. Then they would act out motions for their hands to smoothly exit from the stage.

Official production photo

Official production photo

The most dramatic scene for me would be when the statue comes alive to take Don Giovanni into the flames of hell. Smoke covered the stage and the bright red lights from opposite sides of the stage darkened with a graveyard background. Suddenly a huge statue (a man dressed up as Death with a grey mask and a grey costume) entered the stage and violently took the Don Giovanni puppet into his big hands. The hands that controlled Don Giovanni spread his fingertip in shock and retreated from the scene. The platform where the statue took descended below the stage with Don Giovanni, leaving his servant Leporello cowering in the dark.

Though the show did have bits of old-school ways of performing (lip syncing to a prerecorded music and rolled down drawn background), it rests in my mind as one of the sophisticated performances I have seen this year. From the integration of hand motions in the stage act to the intricate movements of the small bodies of puppets, “Don Giovanni” marionette performance was definitely enjoyable! The setting of the stage (with the orchestra pit and the stage) transformed the audience into viewers of an opera conducted by Mozart himself, and the appearance of human performers gave a multidimensional awareness of present and past, reality and fantasy. It was fascinating to watch different modes of old/modern storytelling coming together on one very small stage. At the end, a male performer dressed as a janitor walked on stage cleaning the floor and placing the puppets in line on the wall as if the marionettes themselves were taking their bows. And the curtains closed. It was a perfect ending to a fantastic performance. I had doubts before, but now I definitely would take my chance to see another marionette performance in the future.


National Marionette Theatre (Prague) website:


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