Opera Warhorses

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Furlanetto, Campbell Lead Compelling Revival of Massenet’s “Don Quixote” – San Diego Opera February 14, 2009

February 17th, 2009

“Don Quixote (Don Quichotte)”, a work of Jules Massenet’s maturity, had its premiere in 1910, the last year of the 20th century’s first decade. Ninety-nine years later, the San Diego Opera has mounted a new production of this work.

[Below: a poster prepared for the Parisian premiere of “Don Quixote (Don Quichotte)”, at the Theatre de la Gaite.]

The opera cannot be said to have had the successful performance history of Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier”, an opera premiered the same year, which, though expensive to produce and cast, has never left the repertory in any region of the world. Nor can “Don Quixote” be described as having the success of even Puccini’s “Girl of the Golden West (Fanciulla del West)”, another debutante of that fruitful year, whose star is rising with its re-evaluation by important musicologists.

Nevertheless, “Don Quichotte” has endured, with important new productions in the latter part of the 20th century. These have included a famous production by Piero Faggioni, associated, among others with Ruggero Raimondi’s Don Quixote, and one by Pierluigi Samaritani, associated with Samuel Ramey. In one or the other of these productions, the opera was seen in Washington DC, New York City, Chicago and San Francisco, as well as a number of European venues.

San Diego Opera, one of the few American companies to have mounted the opera in more than one season (Michael Devlin was San Diego Opera’s 1969 Don Quixote), invested scarce resources in creating a new production of the opera for the opera company’s pre-eminent lead basso, Ferruccio Furlanetto. (Furlanetto is, of course, a world figure, who regularly appears at several major European houses. But that he has a special relationship to San Diego Opera is an uncontested fact.)

To underscore the opera company’s commitment to the work, the company’s General and Artistic Administrator, Ian Campbell, assigned himself the role of stage director, and became intimately involved in all aspects of the production design. (For further information on Ian Campbell and the new “Don Quixote” production, see: An Interview with Ian Campbell, General Director, San Diego Opera.)

Rethinking the Past

When Massenet wrote “Don Quichotte”, Richard Strauss’ “Salome” and  “Elektra” and Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande” were among the controversial new operatic directions in which the 20th century seemed to be headed. The youngbloods who wrote, produced or directed opera included many who felt all of Massenet’s works were “retro”, even old-fashioned. But was a such a judgment correct or fair? Sometimes it takes decades to put things in perspective.

Centennials are an especially  good time to decide which works deserve re-evaluation. After all, every single person who was alive for the premiere performance has passed from the scene, and the alternative works that the youngbloods had offered as “new directions” have been around for a century or more.

The Opera’s Background

Jules Massenet, in collaboration with his librettist Henri Cain, had created his opera based on Jean le Lorraine’s frothy play, Le Chevalier de la longue figure (The Knight of the Rueful Countenance), itself loosely based on characters and situations inspired by Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote de la Mancha. For those opera patrons who have a good knowledge of the two parts of Cervantes’ sprawling work, it is important to stress that le Lorraine had created a story that works as an evening in the theater, but takes great liberties with Cervantes’ storyline.

Since we seem to be in a period in which the fortunes of “Don Quichotte” are on the rise, it should be noted that le Lorraine is himself a person of great interest. He was a cobbler son of a provincial cobbler family.  Like Hans Sachs in Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger”, he was a cobbler with artistic inclinations and he moved to Paris’ Latin Quarter where he could be both artisan and artist.

Le Lorraine’s play Chevalier de la longue figure not only was performed, but became a Parisian hit, thereby attracting the interest of Cain, who sold the idea of making it into an opera to Massenet.  By then le Lorraine was dead, but not before he was able to catch a bit of Parisian adulation for his play.

The opera’s title role was written for a celebrity basso, Fyodor Chaliapin, who appears to have annoyed the usually implacable Massenet, and caused him to prefer a bass baritone, Vanni Marcoux, as the Man of La Mancha, who introduced it to Paris. Two years later, Massenet was dead. Marcoux devoted much of his long career to the opera, introducing it to the New York Metropolitan Opera withn a few years of its premiere, and performing it into the late 1940s.

The role subsequently has been the province of major bassos. Within the past generation, the role has been associated particularly with Nicolai Ghiaurov, Boris Christoff, Ruggero Raimondi, Jose van Dam, and Samuel Ramey. Two major productions by Italian producers, Piero Faggioni and Pierluigi Samaritani have circulated throughout Europe and the United States. California saw the Samaritani production (revived under the supervision of Charles Roubaud), owned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, at San Francisco Opera in 1990 with Ramey.

It is quite likely, if we consider only the past quarter-century, that “Don Quichotte” is the third most often performed of Massenet’s works, behind only “Manon” and “Werther”,  surpassing such other candidates as “Cendrillon”, “Herodiade” and “Thais”. San Diego Opera, whose new production of Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers (Les Pecheurs de Perles)” in 2004 has had an important part in establishing the fortunes of that opera in the United States in the 21st century, may well have a similar impact on Massenet’s tribute to the rueful-countenanced knight.

Even though the roles of Dulcinee and Sancho Panza are substantive parts, requiring great performers, the opera would never be revived unless a major basso has been engaged to sing the title role. Furlanetto not only has the requisite vocal and histrionic power to excel in the role, but he also possesses the persona and star power that any opera company reviving the work would wish its leading basso to have.

Notes on the Performance

A New World team is responsible for the new production of “Don Quixote”. The set designs are those of American scenic designer Ralph Funicello, whose most famous work has been for the Broadway stage. The overall concept is that of Australian-American stage director Ian Campbell, a staunch advocate for the opera.

The scenic design moves between the two scenes of the substantive world of Dulcinee and her quartet of admirer/suitors, and three scenes of Quixote’s experiences away from Dulcinee. Of course, even the substantive world is one of imagination – a woman who presides over a lively court like Lenore in Donizetti’s “La Favorite” or Princess Eboli in Verdi’s “Don Carlos”, albeit, in Dulcinee’s case, with participation by both genders – in what is supposed to be a nondescript town in a province of medieval Spain associated with rural backwardness.

[Below: Dulcinee (Denyce Graves) takes part in the Spanish dancing; edited image of a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]


Graves, who sang the part in Washington National Opera’s recent revival of the Faggioni production, was engaging as Don Quixote’s reluctant fair lady. The sultry, seductive voice for which she is famous in the title role of Bizet’s “Carmen” and as Dalila in Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila” was put to good use as Dulcinee.

Her salon included a group of flamenco dancers, whose revelry in Massenet’s vibrant music, evocative of “sunny Spain”, integrated well into the festivities. (Nicola Bowie was the production’s choreographer.)

Furlanetto, from his first onstage arrival on Rosinante, his noble (although stuffing-filled) steed, was the center of attention throughout the entire opera. Few basso roles dominate an opera like this one, and Furlanetto’s sonorous, fully mature instrument, is a glory to hear.

[Below: Don Quixote (Ferruccio Furlanetto) arrives in town on his steed, Rosinante; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]

Massenet’s operas, particularly this one, have a conversational style in which the words are important. Even though most of the audience relied on supertitles, it was clear that Furlanetto was able to capture every nuance of Cain’s intelligent libretto.

In an opera that abounds in melody, Furlanetto’s Quand apparaissent les etoiles, his mandolin-accompanied chanson d’amour, proved to be a beautiful experience. In the kaleidoscopic moods of this opera, he launches mid-aria into a very funny swordfight with his would-be rival Juan (Bryan Register), until their mistress Dulcinee forbids either one of them to kill the other.

Particularly memorable was the second scene, set in the Countryside. Early into it is one of the two major comic arias for Sancho Panza, amusingly played by Eduardo Chama. His denunciation of the things men are coerced by women into doing is one of the classic comic episodes in French opera, and, after he declares L’homme est une victime, et les maris des saints, Chama received the first sustained applause of the evening. (One can imagine Leporello from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” spending some lively evenings in a Spanish tavern with Sancho Panza comparing the trials and indignities they suffered with their respective dons.)

[Below: Sancho Panza (Eduardo Chama) does some horse whispering to calm Don Quixote’s steed, Rosinante, and his own donkey; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]

Using scrims, mist and murky lighting, Funicello creates the scene that most clearly corresponds to a plot element in Cervantes’ work – Quixote’s battle with the windmills he perceives to be giants. Massenet’s galloping music accompanying Quixote’s furious charge had the audience roaring, the outcome of which has Quixote (a stunt dummy, of course, taking Furlanetto’s place) whirling around on the arms of a windmill as the curtain falls.

[Below: Dulcinee (Denyce Graves) receives the attention of two of her admirer/suitors; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]

Unlike the characters of Carmen and especially Dalila who are dangerous women for any man to become entangled with sexually and emotionally, Dulcinee proves to be ultimately an empathetic woman. She is secure in her domain and unwilling to bend to the particularly unrealistic expectations of an elderly knight errant, but she understands that he needs her explanation and her emotional support even as his illusions are shattered.

[Below: Dulcinee (Denyce Graves) explains to Don Quixote (Ferruccio Furlanetto) why she must reject his offer of marriage; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]

Massenet, in ill health and not too far from his death, proved masterful in writing the mix of music and dialogue that makes the scene of Dulcinee’s apology for her necessary rejection of his marriage proposal seem truly heartfelt. That brilliant scene is followed by the extraordinary final duet between Quixote and his faithful servant, Sancho (which becomes a trio that permits the audience to share – through Massenet’s sweet music – Quixote’s ultimate illusion, that Dulcinee is singing from a star).

[Below: A dying Don Quixote (Ferrruccio Furlanetto) hears the voice of Dulcinee singing from a star as Sancho Panza (Eduardo Chama) comforts him; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]

At the end, Ferruccio Furlanetto took his first solo curtain call, in front of the stage and the entire audience rose in a standing ovation that lasted several minutes. No one sat back down as the rest of the cast and production crew took its bows – the chorus and chorus master Timothy Todd Simmons, conductor Karen Keltner, costume designer Missy West, and Campbell and Funicello.

The new production, which has elegant elements, and yet has been constructed to be relatively inexpensive for opera companies to mount, is a clear success. The opera requires a first rank cast of mezzo-soprano, comic baritone and, a star quality basso cantante, but compared to many in operas in the repertory, this may prove to be an opera within the capacity of even smaller regional companies.

Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers” has benefited from a abundance of coloratura sopranosleggiero tenors, and light baritones to perform Leila, Nadir, and Zurga. In the case of Massenet’s “Don Quichotte”,  it is clear that a generation of fine bassos has become available to follow in the footsteps of this generation’s masters. And, of course, the list of this generation’s masters importantly includes Ferruccio Furlanetto.

For reviews of previous performances by this production’s leads, see: Furlanetto’s, San Diego Opera’s, Compelling 1869 Version of “Boris Godunov” – January 30, 2007

and also: Seductive Denyce Graves Enthralls San Diego in “Samson et Dalila” – February 23, 2007.

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