Don Quichotte, one of the last two operas by Jules Massenet to premier in his lifetime, was effectively out of date before it was even written. By the time the eminent composer, a fixture at the venerable Opéra-Comique for over forty years had completed his score in 1910, the golden age of French Romanticism had already begun to lose its shine. Young tonal impressionists like Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel heralded the approach of the radical modernist movement that was to explode onto the world stage after the Great War. Massenet resolutely refused to join the avant-gardists.
The Canadian Opera Company’s 2013/14 season closer, a captivating reiteration of Seattle Opera’s 2011 Don Quichotte, makes an unloved antique feel cherished again. Production, music and drama combine in an irresistible evocation of a gloriously old-fashioned piece of lyric enchantment.
Surprising as it may seem at first glance, librettist Henri Cain chose to base his story of Cervantes’ dream-fuelled knight, not on the great Spanish author’s sprawling novel but instead on a popular stage play of the era. Le chevalier de la longue figure (The Knight of the Rueful Countenance) by Parisian shoemaker turned amateur dramatist Jacques Le Lorrain so enthralled local audiences, a musical adaptation was practically assured. Apart from the obvious title figure and a vague sense of shared atmosphere, the Le Lorrain-Cain story owes precious little to its celebrated literary antecedent. The spirit of Cervantes may illuminate Massenet’s opera much the same way as a series of quixotic quotes lights the COC house curtain between scene changes but in reality Don Quichotte is pure pastiche.
A fiesta day in an out of the way Spanish village. Four young suitors court the attention of haughty young Dulcinée who makes her scorn abundantly clear. Life, she insists, holds more in store for her than love songs. The cries of the townsfolk announce the arrival of Don Quichotte, a familiar elderly eccentric who delights at playing knight errant, accompanied by his irascible servant Sancho Panza. The pair dismounts from horse and donkey to a chorus of good-natured cheers. Delighted by the reception, Quichotte orders a grumbly Sancho to distribute the meagre contents of their purse to the poor. The crowd soon scatters. Hungry and cranky, Sancho heads for the nearest inn to scrounge his dinner. Quichotte gazes towards Dulcinée’s balcony. Scarcely has he begun to serenade the beguiling beauty he so idolizes when one of Dulcinée’s jealous admirers challenges the aging seigneur to a duel. Dulcinée intervenes despite Quichotte’s indignant protest that honour has not yet been suitably served. Amused, Dulcinée begs her creaky champion to prove his worthiness by recovering a missing pearl necklace snatched from her bedroom by a notorious bandit chief. Quichotte eagerly agrees to undertake the quest.
A misty morning in the neighbouring countryside. Don Quichotte’s mind is flooded with lofty thoughts of his cherished Dulcinée. Sancho curses women under his breath. Suddenly, a troop of giants looms out of the haze. Quichotte raises his lance and charges, mistaking a row of windmills for monstrous attackers.
Dusk in the mountains. Quichotte is confidant he has discovered the bandit chief’s lair. Ténébron, the thief, and his pack of cut-throats pop up from hiding. Sancho takes to his heels but Quichotte stands his ground, praying to God to receive his soul. Profoundly touched by the old man’s righteousness, Ténébron, on learning of Quichotte’s mission, voluntarily surrenders Dulcinée’s string of pearls. The old knight pronounces a blessing on the circle of kneeling villains.
A party at Dulcinée’s house. Dulcinée flirts with her suitors but soon grows bored. Her admirers press their advances. Dulcinée loses patience. None of them, she snaps, understands her. Quichotte and Sancho enter. Musing on the sweetness of days to come wed to his precious true love, Quichotte promises his devoted squire a carefree life as ruler of Sancho’s very own island. Dulcinée approaches. Quichotte proudly hands her the necklace followed by a flowery marriage proposal. Dulcinée and company laugh. Quichotte, too virtuous to lash out, quietly hides his pain. Sancho bitterly chastises the heedless young woman and her callous guests. Together, he and his master slip away.
Night in the mountains. Worn out and defeated, Quichotte feels death’s approach beneath a star-strewn sky. Sancho cradles the old man’s head. Quichotte releases his faithful friend from service, gifting him the only island he possesses — the Island of Dreams. Imagining Dulcinée calling farewell to him from the twinkling heavens, Don Quichotte dies.
The story may be simple but the dramatic imperative is arresting. Steadfastly sentimental, wildly romantic, Massenet’s tragi-comic tale generates waves of emotion that only the hardest heart could possibly resist. Characters are remarkably well developed for a calculated piece of breezy musical entertainment. Dulcinée, an original made-for-Don Quichotte persona, triggers the bulk of the operatic tension. Part stock soubrette, part modern woman, the object of Quichotte’s obsessive devotion proves to be his destruction. The high-minded knight perishes from a broken heart, a fitting end to a life-long career spent playing the role of courtly romantic hero. Quichotte suffers more as a result of his fundamental goodness than he does from his delusions. A distinct aura of saintliness surrounds the haggard chevalier’s encounters with the outcast and the deprived. Even Sancho Panza, a mercilessly sharp-tongued critic, has nothing remotely cynical to say on the subject of Quichotte’s piety. God is in the narrative details here.
Not all aspects of this Don Quichotte are tinged with sadness and regret. Set designer Donald Eastman’s scattered collection of colossal books, huge quill pens and over-sized inkwells brings the grandeur of Quichotte’s world of living fiction into graphic focus. Director Linda Brovsky deploys the playful metaphor to great effect. Stacked volumes form a treacherous mountain hide-out, a plaza in a poor village, a staid drawing room. We are in a land of make-believe as vast as imagination and as fantastic as dreams where life is an endless adventure. Swords glint in the bright Spanish sunlight. Flamenco dancers prance and twirl. Children scramble from their path as Quichotte and Sancho embark on horse and donkey to face unknown danger. Rosinante and El Rucio are real four-legged players in Brovsky’s lively staging. There are tears in this production, boundless joy and laughter, too.
Don Quichotte is not the mightiest of Massenet’s operas but its musical values are far more robust than some commentators suggest. Lush and expressive, it is above all else a showcase for round, mellow voices, principally that of its lead.
Singing the demanding title role in all seven performances of the Canadian Opera Company’s presentation, international sensation Ferruccio Furlanetto creates a Don Quichotte of enormous artistry distinguished by a rich maturity of sound and sweeping humanity. There is a gentle world-weary tint to Furlanetto’s instrument, an affecting hint of melancholy that gives great soulfulness to his many genuinely poignant appearances. Perhaps nowhere is the great Italian basso profondo more in command of our affection than during his rendition of Massenet’s stunningly rapturous Quand apparaissent les etoiles (“When the stars appear”), a hymn in praise of Dulcinée’s beauty destined to reappear in later orchestral passages. The duel that interrupts the Act I aria turns the prevailing mood upside down. Furlanetto never misses a beat, snapping from pathos to comedy and back in the flash of a sword blade.
Baritone Quinn Kelsey sings a remarkable Sancho Panza. With his rough and ready spontaneity and appealingly husky timbre, Quichotte’s testy sidekick comes to life in all his earthy glory. Sancho is very much an alter ego figure, an uncomplicated, occasionally crude counterpoint to the gracious don’s refinement. Kelsey and Furlanetto play magnificently off one another, vocally and physically. Kelsey’s blistering Ca, vous commettez tous un acte épouvantable (“Stop! You propose a crime that is wicked and cruel”), Sancho’s ferocious defence of his spurned master at the close of Act IV, deservedly stops the show.
Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili is a splendidly multi-dimensional Dulcinée, cunning and coquettish, restless and independent. Charged by Massenet to launch his opera on a decidedly winsome note with Quand la femme a vingt ans (“When her years are a score”), Rachvelishvili captures the allure of the moment in her typically bold, contralto-like colours.
One of the singularly attractive features of Don Quichotte is the opera’s demi-chorus comprised of four comprimari, two of them mezzos singing trouser roles, the other two tenors. Pedro (Sasha Djihanian) Garcias (Ariana Chris), Rodriguez (Andrew Haji) and Juan (Owen McCausland), Dulcinée’s admirers, form a tight vocal unit. The close harmonies are as lovely as they are refreshing, the higher ranges of the group deliberately posed against the much lower pitches of the opera’s three principals.
The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra under the subtly persuasive baton of Music Director Johannes Debus plays Massenet’s restrained yet luxuriant score with sweetness and elegance. Soloists are masterful, orchestral themes lovingly introduced. Intermezzi are superb, particularly the tearful Act V prelude to Quichotte’s death. Although not heavily taxed by the composer, the COC Chorus excels.
Touching production, strong cast, marvellous accompaniment, this Don Quichotte comes alive. Massenet is well-served by the COC. And so are we.