Don Quichotte, the last surviving operatic treatment of the canonical Spanish work of literature, debuted at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1926, 16 years after its Monte Carlo premiere. It was performed nine times and, near a century later, never since.
The reviews were barbarian. One in particular, by Lawrence Gilman in the Herald Tribune, is perhaps more famous, and arguably more entertaining, than the piece of art itself.
Unforgivable for the independent-minded critic, I went and found the bilious essay after seeing Opera Australia’s new Don Quichotte, which bravely/stupidly opened in Sydney last Friday. I am now, naturally, rendered wordless for this review. Gilman, with a perception and precision largely extinct, nailed it.
But I must quibble just a little. I think Don Quichotte, at least this San Diego Opera production brought into the Sydney Opera House, is a little better than he gives it credit for.
French composer Jules Massenet (that is, the “eternal lackey”) is more readily revived in his earlier opera works Manon and Werther. And with good reason, Gilman wrote of Don Quichotte:
“The music is a prodigy of vacuous ineptitude. Its impotence is breathtaking. You wonder how even a tenth rate composer could front such a subject as that of Don Quixote … and bring himself to set down the paltry stuff that constitutes this score. The music has not a gleam of authentic beauty, or fine feeling, or characterization. Of the wistful ardor, the rich comedy, the valorous tenderness, the searching and insupportable pathos that are implicit in the subject and essential to it, there is not a trace. The invention throughout is puerile. The music is a maddening trickle of banalities, shallow, tepid, tasteless.”
Ouch. Mere mortals can but dream of being so inept. Unimaginative, perhaps, but evocative enough in its infectious Spanish dances and rumbling lovelorn arias for its leading bass. The instrumental suites between acts are very pretty indeed. A poor man’s Carmen, let’s say, which is nothing to sneeze at given the earlier success of Massenet’s compatriot Georges Bizet’s enduring classic. For a final, death-bed composition, it ‘aint half bad. Here, conductor Guillaume Tourniaire sets a nice pace and transitions the orchestra between the wildly disparate parts of the score with relative ease.
As for the libretto, well, Henri Cain copped it in the neck from Gilman too. He wrote it was:
“… so lifeless, so trite, so tedious, that you stand amazed at the power of transmutation which could make over a supreme romance, a thing of inexhaustible comedy and pathos and beauty, into what is surely the flattest and thinnest libretto that was ever set to music.”
Ever …? Even accounting for translation, the words certainly lack the poetry the original work is known for, which is only brought into sharper focus in this production by the decision to project some of Miguel de Cervantes’ celebrated quotes onto the curtain between acts. Cain is no match.
But the problems are more structural. In this loose adaptation, any sense of swashbuckling adventure is erased. Rather than capture the full work, Massenet colours in just a few vignettes, based on a play by poet Jacques Le Lorrain. Gilman’s take is fair:
“The thing, as drama, never comes to life. It has no continuity of pattern, no tension, no substance. It is operatic sawdust of the most unnourishing kind.”
Cocky boy meets fiery girl, girl makes boy chase after a band of thieves to retrieve her necklace and win her love, boy succeeds but is humiliated by the girl anyway. And if you think that sounds vaguely exciting, moving even, the disjointed, plodding plot robs it of the possibility.
So why go along? For Ferruccio Furlanetto, for one. Sydney audiences, who got to hear the Italian bass in concert last year, can now see him inhabit a character completely. After illness kept him away from opening night, his first run on Monday had him in fine form. He posses an instrument of rare sonorous strength, but more importantly is prepared to compromise it to bring some pathos to the role of a man awakening to his delusion but running out of time.
It’s also a treat to hear the Russian contralto Elena Maximova as the woman of Don’s affections. Hers is a voice of a singular earthy quality, with almost guttural low notes and a smouldering vibrato that makes you long for more stage time (she’s absent from three of the five acts). More of her, please.
In the buffo role of Don’s long-suffering sidekick, Australian Warwick Fyfe is a terrific foil in a pretty thankless role (“his salt and savor all deleted” from the source, wrote Gilman). Locals Graeme Macfarlane, John Longmuir, Jane Ede and Anna Dowsley complete the principal cast.
This production, reliably revived by director Hugh Halliday with pretty period costumes (Missy West) and sets (Ralph Funicello, who makes an effective fist of Don’s legendary tilt at windmills in act two particularly), makes a decent case for Don Quichotte’s place in the canon. And still demonstrates wholly why it may be unsalvageable. Lawrence Gilman would presumably remain unmoved.
There’s a good opera in Don Quixote. Four hundred years later, we’re still waiting.
Don Quichotte plays the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House on March 21, 24, 26 and 28.