Opera North Blog

Don Giovanni, Master of Puppets


In an opera that opens with an attempted rape and closes with damnation to hell, is there really a place for a Punch and Judy show? Emma Franklin discusses...

"Don Giovanni, the timeless tale of power, seduction, and pride as goeth before a fall, has historically interwoven pain and misfortune with mischief and dark humour. And this staging, directed by the energetic Alessandro Talevi, is no exception. Violence and silliness are meted out in equal measure, the audience akin to passengers on a hijacked, time-travelling jumbo jet. But – let’s be serious – we’re talking about a serial womaniser, a murderer, a would-be rapist being dragged to hell; a string of women assaulted, manipulated, heartbroken and bereaved; and their loved ones brutally beaten and killed. Is slapstick humour really appropriate here?

Like the Don himself, performance of this story has a long and chequered history. What was once coarse and bawdy street theatre is now cloaked in respectability: a night at the opera. Those who might say that such crudeness does not belong in opera are missing the point entirely. But what’s interesting about the use of slapstick violence is how we find ourselves responding to it. The sight of one man viciously beating another – or stubbing out a cigarette on his neck, perhaps – would not usually cause onlookers to laugh and to feel good. But in this staging of Don Giovanni, that’s precisely what happens. Sometimes it’s achieved through mime-like comedic acting, and other times through the use of ‘Punch and Judy’ style puppets. The main distinction is that these puppets do not have wooden faces, but the live, human faces of opera singers.

So, why is it funny? Theories abound, from those of Plato and Descartes – that we laugh at others to feel superior in ourselves – to those of Shaftesbury and Freud – that laughter is a response of relief to the releasing of built-up tension. Others have argued that it comes down to violation of norms; we cannot help but laugh when moral, social and physical norms are being flouted in a safe and benign context, like a stage performance or a cartoon. Experiments using brain scans have suggested that violence is funny – to men, in particular – when the sufferer is considered to deserve it, meaning that there is a role to be played by our sense of justice. Another study has found that it all comes down to facial expression: the human brain processes humour and fear in similar ways, and depending on a person’s facial expression we can either feel distressed by an act of violence or we can laugh at it, knowing that they are not really in danger. In other words, it seems we are hardwired to laugh at the misfortunes of others.

The use of puppets to portray violence in Don Giovanni is, therefore, surprisingly sophisticated. For one, it suspends any sense of realism; we can rest assured, even on a subconscious level, that this is not a real attack. Critics of realism in opera or “gratuitous violence”, whatever that is, can rest easy. The fact that the facial expressions of the actors are still visible prevents the scene from descending into total abstraction. We keep one foot in the real, so to speak.

It also reminds us who is in control. Giovanni’s ability to effortlessly seduce and manipulate is demonstrated here in a tangible way, his victims rendered mere automata. Talevi alludes to this in other parts of the production, when Giovanni casts his invisible, supernatural powers over the other characters, who at one point believe themselves to be pigs. Like children watching a Punch and Judy show, we too find ourselves transfixed, astonished, and – dare I say – tickled. And as the silliness reaches greater, more dizzying heights, we are inevitably brought back down with a powerful thud – sometimes physically, as in the case of Masetto’s battered human body which lies, writhing, on the ground. We suddenly remember the gravity of our situation: we, the audience, are powerless to the events unfolding in front of us. An insatiable and dangerous man wreaks devastation everywhere he goes, his victims now thirsty for vengeance and his hapless servant the likely scapegoat. Weren’t we laughing, just now? How did we forget ourselves?

Giovanni’s own fate – to be carried away against his will by higher powers – seems only fitting for an overindulged puppeteer. And its magnitude, rather than being lost in farce, hits home for an audience whose guilty pleasures are Schadenfreude and violent puppet shows."

Written by Emma Franklin. Emma is currently a PhD candidate at Lancaster University in the Department of Linguistics and English Language where she is undertaking a corpus-linguistic investigation of the representation of violence in a range of animal-related texts. Emma completed a REP (Research Employability Project) with Opera North throughout our Fatal Passions season and has applied her research to think about ways we might interpret the violence depicted in this season’s productions.

Photography by Bill Cooper

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