Sunday, February 15, 2009

Hope Was All He Lived For: Massenet's Don Quichotte at the San Diego Opera (14 February 2009)

San Diego was finally granted a re-visit by Jules Massenet's operatic take on Don Quixote last night after a 40 years absence.

Ferrucio Furlanetto as Don Quichotte. Photo: Cory Weaver
You know the story, sort of; Don Quichotte is an old and rather delusional Spanish nobleman who drags his squire, the faithful but grumpy Sancho Panza, around the countryside looking for a quest to prove his chivalric valor. Along the way he meets and falls instantly in love with Dulcinea, a fetchingly beautiful country lady with many suitors on her hand who finds the aging knight's chivalric devotion both flattering and amusing. She sends him off on an errand to retrieve her stolen necklace from the bandit Tenebrun (which he is successful at, after having needlessly fended off many harmless sheeps and perfectly neutral windmills along the way). As grateful and happy as she is at getting her treasure back, Dulcinea finds Don Quichotte's marriage proposal an offer she must definitely refuse, even though she is apologetic about it. Deprived of the hope of ever being with the woman he loves, Quichotte gives up his ghost as Sancho looks on in distress.

So, yep, the ending isn't quite the same as what you've read in Cervantes' novel, but then the opera is based more on the French play, Le chevalier de la longue figure, rather than on the wittily satiric original novel. It is a short-ish opera at only a bit over 2 hrs (5 acts given with 1 intermission between acts 3 and 4) with Spanish coloring though still thoroughly Romantic Period French music (through-composed, of course). The tragic flavor of the story is kept light by the music that has some wicked comedic scenes by Sancho Panza to keep this opera a good introductory work to newcomers to the genre. There are
two harps in the orchestra pit, and they are put to very good use during the show. If you think 'Morning Mood' in Grieg's Peer Gynt is good, you've gotta hear the orchestral dawn that opens the 2nd act of Massenet's Don Quichotte. You can even hear the changing color of the sky as the sun creeps up from the horizon!

Denyce Graves as Dulcinea. Photo: Cory Weaver
Anyhow, like most other productions at the San Diego Opera, this Don Quichotte is traditionally staged by Ian Campbell (the SDO's general manager) himself, using Ralph Funicello's beautiful set and Marie Barrett's imaginative lighting to great effects. If anything, La Dulcinea's house may be a bit well endowed for the character, but all the scenes are both pleasing to the eye and practical for the theatrics.

The show opened with an uneven chorus (they got better as the show rolled on, though) and a rousing dancing scene (bravi to the principal dancers Lisa Solar and Pablo Pizano for their infectiously fiery attitude that kicks the opera off to a good start) with the town populace joining in singing in praise of Dulcinea's beauty. This being my first encounter with this opera, I was caught off guard by some strangely feminine sound coming out of the Dulcinea's four male suitors.... until I realized that 2 of them are actually trouser roles (male roles written for female singers)! Both Laura Portune (Pedro) and Rebe
cca Skaar (Garcias) fit so well into their male costume that it took hearing their voice to realize that they are actually ladies.

This was also the first time I heard Denyce Graves live. The 45 yrs old American mezzo is in a good physical shape and cuts a fetching figure as the opera's designate seductress, but, strangely enough, the voice seems an odd misfit for the role. I'd think that Dulcinea is dramatically a rather different role than Bizet's Carmen (who wouldn't be caught dead feeling regretful or sorry for any man) and that she has to be able to charm you. Graves' singing, however is better suited to the empathy-free Carmen than to the essentially-kind-at-heart-even-if-hardened-by-the-streets Dulcinea. I don't think she should sound refined but quite some gentleness is called for that just isn't there in this voice. The top register is rather edgy with a prominently pulsing vibrato when sung at mf or louder, the middle is really quite nicely textured and alluring, the bottom... o my... is more harshly masculine than many chorus tenors sharing the stage... and there is no real dramatic use for that sort of timbre in this work, I think. She also had a hard time with the flurries of Spanish pastiche ornamentation in the music. I think she did well with her acting on opening night, though, and there was some really nice soft singing in the final 2 acts.

As Sancho Panza was Eduardo Chama, the Argentinian bass-baritone who lighted up the stage with his aptly comical acting. He under-projected his voice a bit in the first half of the show, but adjusted nicely after the break and proves a good partner for the title role; the grumpily cynic to Quixote's untempered optimism, a lovably rude oaf to his master's vague nobility, and a spark of reality to the don's persistent delusion.

The success or failure of this opera, however, rests on the shoulders of the title role, Don Quichotte, and a broader and more dependable shoulder you won't find today than that of the Italian basso Ferruccio Furlanetto. I don't know how tall he really is, but on the stage he was larger than life and yet still convincing as a frail old man... albeit one with a fresh and sonorous enough voice to pass for someone at least a decade younger than his actual 60 yrs! This Don Quichotte is detached from reality and yet lovably engaging, noble and yet beleaguered all at once. An avid golfer, Furlanetto is probably spry enough off the stage, but his on stage Don Quichotte was so in character all opera long you'd never doubt the uncertainty of his gait and the fragility of his health. His lovely Act I serenade was lyrically sung and his Act III prayer quietly inspiring. He stood out in crowded scenes, and filled the stage in minimalistic ones... The show was Furlanetto's and he was well rewarded with a tumultuous and long standing ovation at the curtain. Bravo maestro! That show was an ace all the way from the tee to the hole!

Final scene for Don Quichotte. Photo: Cory Weaver
The minor roles and chorus are well sung and acted, I think. I'm afraid the sung French, aside from Furlanetto's, was pretty hard to decipher much of the evening and there was a bit of a glitch with the English sur-title during Act III where it simply refused to show during Don Quichotte's prayer, and then turned back up a little out of sync for a while. The music is descriptive and the acting convincing enough for that to not matter much at all, however. Furlanetto could have been singing in Martian and there would still be no mistaking what was going on. Maestra Karen Keltner had the baton over the San Diego Symphony Orchestra in the pit and she was superbly supportive of the singers while drawing out a very French and Spanish flavor from the instruments.

Times are hard today for performance arts. Getting to hear and see such a good performance of a rarely performed opera now when most theaters are scrambling to ditch novelties for the sure-money-maker standard repertoire operas is a real treat any lover of classical music and singing should not miss. Remaining performances of Massenet's Don Quichotte at the San Diego Civic Theater are: February 17, 20, 22. Even if you can't afford the full ticket price, drop by at the theater an hour before performance time and you might be able to get a rush ticket for only $20!

Production photographs by Cory Weaver are posted courtesy of the San Diego Opera.


Anonymous said...

Cool review, as always, matie! Looks like the staging was the same I've seen in broadcast from Paris Opera in 2000 with Samuel Ramey as Don Quichotte. Did the Dulcinea's balcony look like a fairy castle on Disney's logo? If it did, then the production is definitely the same.

DQ is such a touching and bittersweet story, isn't it? The finale has nearly moved me to tears with its lonely star silently shining above and DQ singing about the island of dreams that he gives to his faithful Sancho.

And you gotta love this fiery Spanish music in Act I. So different from the usual Massenet's stuff.

Smorg said...

Privet matie! Thanks for stopping by! :o) Nah, the Dulcinea's balcony in this production is more of what you'd expect from ... the Almaviva household in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, I think. Not a fairy castle, but still rather upperclass-ish for the character. I think it's a new production built here last fall. It works quite well. :o)

It is a touching story indeed... Quixote in this opera somehow reminds me of Vincent Van Gogh.. as Don McLean's song would have it. Furlanetto didn't leave many dry eyes in the house during the end scene on the premier performance. It helped that Denyce Graves' singing from off-stage there was also very nice.

Really, the SDO ought to make a commercial DVD out of this run of Don Quichotte. Furlanetto was just wonderful! :o)

Hope your flu is ebbing speedily. Thanks again for stopping by!

Georg said...

Hallo Smorgy,

Glad to realize that you took up Massenet as a subject.

I know M. was Napoleon's favorite opera composer. At the Paris Imperial Court, old Massenet was N° One.

This was one more reason to forget about him and stick to Mozart and his pals.

Now I have to listen to some of his compositions to find out for myself.

Next thing: I've always had the impression that the French language is not suitable for singing. Can't really explain why. The nasal sounds?

What do you think about this? Better answer by email when you have a moment to spare.