Cher Public

Winning streak

quichotteLike our beloved Cubs, Chicago Lyric Opera is in the midst of a championship season. So far, Lyric is batting 4 for 4—after an exciting new Rheingold, a solid Lucia, and a splendid Les Troyens, on Saturday night was the opening of a completely satisfying production of Massenet’s late “heroic comedy” Don Quichotte

This production, directed with heart, passion, and attention to detail by Matthew Ozawa, was alternately warm, amusing, sentimental, and deeply moving, featuring extraordinary performances by the principals and chorus as well as a stirring and exciting reading from the Lyric Opera Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis.

After all the cynicism, bitterness, and rancor of the election and its results in the last few weeks, this reviewer found this touching tale of gentle romantic idealism and the redemptive power of love to be the perfect tonic. How wonderful that an evening at the opera can be so uplifting in the midst of these chaotic times.

The production, from the San Diego Opera, was a marvel. It was one of those rare occasions when scenery (Ralph Funicello), costumes (Missy West), and lighting (Chris Maravich) worked together synergistically to make a production not only stunningly beautiful to see, but also completely in tune with the style of the music and the story.

The inventive use of scrims, the starry skies, the warmly lit scenes in the village where Dulcinée rules hearts and minds, the brilliant windmill projections, and above all, Don Quichotte’s vision of Dulcinée riding on a star in his dying moments—all unforgettable visuals that enhanced and supported the story telling. It certainly showed that an unabashedly traditional production can still thrill an audience.

What can be said about the great veteran bass Ferruccio Furlanetto? He was vocal and dramatic perfection in the title role that he has sung to acclaim in Toronto, San Diego, St. Petersburg, Madrid, and Palermo. He sang like a man 20 years younger, no wobble in his powerful sound, his every gesture elegant and sincere. It was a warm, generous performance straight from the heart of a great artist. He managed to balance humor and pathos in perfect measure. His death scene in Act Five was one of the most moving in memory.

Nicola Alaimo as Sancho and Clementine Margaine as Dulcinée both made stunning Lyric debuts. Of course, the role of Dulcinée in Don Quichotte bears no semblance to the guttersnipe Aldonza in Man of La Mancha—here she is the great beauty of the town, sought after by all the eligible men. Ms. Margaine has a very impressive, earthy mezzo voice that’s perfectly capable of extending to strong high notes, and she uses it with style and grace.

She balances the character’s haughtiness and glamour with her deeply sympathetic moments of sadness for the plight of Don Quichotte, especially in Act Four when she dismisses the Don’s marriage proposal with laughter, only to be seized with pity when she realizes that she has crushed his spirit utterly. This was my first hearing of Ms. Margaine, and I look forward to many more. She is capable of huge, dramatic mezzo power, yet is able to spin out impressive pianissimos in her quiet moments.

At his first entrance, I was concerned that Alaimo’s Sancho was going to be overly bumptious and farcical, but he very quickly found the character’s heart and delivered a very funny, ultimately moving performance. In Act One, his smooth baritone seemed a size too small compared to the power of Mr. Furlanetto and Ms. Margaine, but here, too, he found an extra gear beginning in the second act and more than held his own, complete with an exquisitely touching and emotional moment as he begs Quichotte not to die.

The supporting cast was mostly excellent, especially Ryan Opera Center members Jonathan Johnson as Dulcinée’s suitor Rodriguez and Bradley Smoak, superb and riveting in the mostly-spoken role of the Bandit Chief redeemed by Don Quichotte. The wonderful Lyric Opera Chorus under Michael Black, as always, sang and acted with detail and precision, adding much life to the scenes in the town square.

From the first stirring notes of the Spanish-flavored overture, Davis was masterful both in the grander moments of the score and in the deceptively simple and direct melodies. Only one shaky brass entrance marred a splendid performance from the orchestra. This opera, written very late in Massenet’s life, is graced with wonderfully simple musical textures (like Quichotte’s serenade to Dulcinée) as well as frenzied ones (the Windmill Scene) and moments of nobility and spirituality (the redemptive ending of Act Three).

I found that the piece more than equals the musical landscapes of his better- known operas Manon, Werther, and Thais. I suppose it is rarely produced because of the difficulty of casting the title role (Massenet wrote it for the great Russian bass Chaliapin).

This would seem an ideal production for families and for introducing a newbie to opera, given its familiar story, positive outlook, and concise length (less than 2 ½ hours including intermission). To me, this performance was a testament to the power of opera. I left the Civic Opera House feeling uplifted, moved, and quietly delighted that there is still a power in innocence, romance, and idealism in this world.

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

  • Thanks for the lovely review, Henson. I saw Furlanetto in Toronto with Rachvelishvili and Kelsey. It’s a touching, enjoyable piece. I definitely prefer it to Thais. Manon has greater material but is overlong whereas Don Quichotte doesn’t feel long. Werther is still my favourite Massenet (and I’m not a big fan in general).

    • Porgy Amor

      Werther and Quichotte are the two I like. Some of the others…oh, once in a while, but I will have to insist on fantastic casts. I have not even gotten there yet with Cendrillon, which some of my fellow doubters think highly of, and I have seen the Met-bound Pelly production that has been done seemingly everywhere.

      The Quichotte recording with Ghiaurov, Bacquier, and Crespin is a favorite of mine. Crespin’s vocal acting in that is as good as any I’ve ever heard achieved in a studio. A Dulcinée whose teasing never hides her underlying sweetness; ultimately both less and more than what Don Quichotte sees, and worthy of foolish quests.

      • Porgy, against my better instincts for who can abide my self importance and corpulent asseveration, this is an edit of something I wrote about Cendrillon:

        Cendrillon</i< (Cinderella) (1895) is lesser known Massenet but it may be his greatest (only great?) opera. Written when he was 53, world-famous, and very rich, it owes the least to the popular styles of his time. Massenet entirely deserts the heavy-breathing, sometimes manipulative (though often clever) style he had used in operas such as Manon and Werther for a very tender work. Underneath the playfulness there is an ache for a time lost for good, a sadness, not heavy but recognizable to anyone who has seen youth fade. Times were really not better back then; but then, regardless, magic was possible and a happy ending might just be snatched at the last minute. The influence of another profound, nostalgic farce, Falstaff by Verdi (1893) is not lost on him.

        Cendrillon is a summa of all the music Massenet knew. He looks far backward to the baroque world of Lully and Rameau, providing as send up and homage irresistibly tuneful and fantastically scored dance music (trombones and a tuba figure in, always with wit); he also glances at the French comedies of Rossini and of Offenbach, and finally looks forward. The music given the Fairy Godmother (known simply as The Fairy), though the vocal line is high and very florid, has evocative, often original scoring and a harmonic palette that suggests musical impressionism—Ravel and particularly Debussy learned a lot from this score.

        Debussy’s sonata for flute, viola, and harp from 21 years later is clearly suggested by a wonderful sequence for exactly those instruments within the fairy music. Of great interest too are the duets between Cinderella and her Prince Charming, written to be sung by a contrasting soprano —they are glorious in themselves, but Richard Strauss clearly had them in mind when composing Der Rosenkavalier (1911).

        • Porgy Amor

          I feel I should thank you for that beyond clicking the “up-vote.” I should say this is not one of the Massenets I know to the point that I can call specific movements of it to mind “cold.” I have heard it a couple of times all the way through (without needing to write about it, just for my own enjoyment), and I saw the filmed production with DiDonato, Coote, and Podles. I did find it pleasant and engaging, but maybe I need to live with it a little more. Your admiration for it does heighten my interest.

    • rapt

      Oh, but give the very brief Therese a chance. (I’m obsessed with my recording of it--Tourangeau’s most [maybe only] shining hour.) Le Jongleur de Notre Dame, though a bit fey, is pretty irresistible, too, imho..

      • grimoaldo2

        “Le Cid” had a very successful production in Marseilles with Alagna in the title role, repeated at the Palais Garnier last year.
        The whole performance was on youtube and it was wonderful but has unfortunately disappeared, but here is Alagna in his big aria:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tg46Z4Q4XjI

        • actfive

          Wonderful!

        • Yes, I forgot all about Le Cid which I know only from having seen this production on TV. It struck me as quite a worthwhile piece.

        • Not a very exciting production, but Alagna and Plasson, in particular, turned it into a great evening.

      • Oh rapt, because it’s you I’ll give it a chance (if I come across it lol).

        • rapt

          Because it’s me! Oh, kashania, my fellow Libra--my heart melts!

  • grimoaldo2

    Wonderful review, thank you!

  • swordsnsolvers

    I saw this last night. After the heavy feast of Les Troyens last week this piece was like a light, refreshing dessert. I’m so glad I got a chance to hear Furlanetto live in this role, I can well understand why it is his fave. I was a bit less impressed with Clementine Margaine, her voice has a great heft and color, but I thought her intonation was somewhat smeared and inexact.

  • berkeleygirl

    Thanks so much! I see this Sunday afternoon.

    I agree, Henson, that Lyric is on a major roll. The level of artistry is the highest it’s been in some time. Fleming probably deserves a lot of the credit.