Looking for the perfect Don Quixote and getting close to it at Opera Australia

Theatre director Fiona Blair sees a production of the operatic version of Don Quixote by Jules Massenet and finds herself rewarded for all the other renderings of Miguel de Cervantes’ novel she’s forced herself (and others) to endure over the years. 

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I’ve got some form on Don Quixote. I’ve had a tilt.

I’ve tried to compress the 74 chapters of road-trip and episodic encounters into the space of an hour or two, and I did not escape unscathed. To call Miguel de Cervantes’ novel unwieldy, is to confirm that you’ve never read it.

Recovery was slow. And I watched/read/listened to a lot of other ‘Dons’, availing myself of any opportunity to witness how other suckers faired.

As a child I’d fixated on the Classics Illustrated comic version, and read the retold-for-younger-readers picture book. And I knew the musical Man of La Mancha.

But now I read Monsignor Quixote, the novel by Graham Greene, and saw the Alec Guiness/Leo McKern BBC adaptation. I watched Lost in La Mancha, Terry Gilliam’s descent into Don-ness, and Donovan Quick with Colin Firth; I listened to the music Purcell contributed to The Comical History of Don Quixote; I read the subtitles for the Spanish movie Don Quijote de la Mancha on DVD; I saw the Hallmark version with John Lithgow and Bob Hoskins on Pay-TV; the Robert Helpmann-Rudolf Nureyev ballet on YouTube; I even re-read the comic!

Was it obsession? Madness? A quixotic quest?

Difficult to say.

But as I sat down to witness Opera Australia’s production of Massenet’s Don Quichotte, I felt a Zen-like calm descend upon me, at the prospect of crossing another manifestation of Don Q. from off my bucket list.

And if I wasn’t transported to Spain, so much as to my parent’s living room for the Saturday afternoon black-and-white feature on the telly, I was, even so, transported, and I looked about wistfully for a cup of tea.

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Adapted from a play, rather than the original blockbuster novel, the adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are truncated into just five scenes: their arrival at the home of a world-weary Dulcinée/Dulcinea; Don Quichotte’s battle with the windmills; his retrieval from bandits of Dulcinée’s pearl necklace; his proposal to Dulcinée; and his death.

Extracts from the (fictional) life, as it were; characters so famous they need no explanation.

Which is how they’ve always been actually. The book was so successful that by Book Two (which Cervantes wrote hurriedly, in an attempt to forestall publication of an unauthorised sequel by another author), Don Q. and Sancho are recognisable to everyone they meet, well aware of the original novel and infuriated at the notion that a fake-fiction Quixote and a fake-fiction Sancho may ride the fake-fictional road ahead.

And here they are, a man wielding a jousting spear, wearing a tin vest and headgear, astride a mangy-looking wooden nag (on wheels) accompanied by his fat little comrade astride an equally mangy-looking donkey, also wooden, also on wheels. What else do we need?

It’s the core performances that are the vein of gold at the heart of this production.

The score – beautifully performed by Victoria Orchestra conducted by Guillaume Tourniaire – is lush and lovely, but not exactly memorable. There’s some pretty great flamenco dancing choreographed by Tomás Dietz. The OA chorus sing lustily, managing both the robust, slightly spiteful good humour and brittle fickleness of the crowd.

The set, at its worst, is clunkily-charming in a B-grade movie kind of way, and at it’s best, simple and rather lovely. The sequences where branches or rocks are revealed against a wash of stars or sunset work beautifully, and the windmill encounter, combining constructed and projected windmills, is a triumph!

But it’s the core performances that are the vein of gold at the heart of this production.

Sian Pendry as Dulcinée/Dulcinea – here made manifest as a sophisticated, world-weary woman (a bit of a bitch actually), rather than the tantalising, exquisite creation of the Don’s imaginings (which means we lose my favourite line: ’Farewell Dulcinea! Since we never met, our love was perfect!’ – there’s a shelf of self-help books in that utterance) – is superb. After initially mocking the knight, her eventual rejection of his suit is made with grace and in private; it’s not just him, she doesn’t want to marry anyone.

Warwick Fyfe’s Sancho sings up a storm. The opera leaves out the many beatings and whippings that he (and Quixote) endure, and all humour of a scatological nature (* Just to confirm, there is  no vomiting, flatulence or excretion of any kind in this production). But Fyfe’s Sancho is suitably fat and funny, a complete complement to Quichotte – and his belief in the knight is total.

The staging (by revival director John Sheedy) emphasises Quichotte as a holy innocent, the knight reviled by the mob and later tied (crucifixion-style) to a stake.

Ferruccio Furlanetto in the lead role is perfection. He captures both Quichotte’s compelling belief in the justness of his cause (superbly realised in the scene with the bandits, where his every gesture is imbued with power), and his bewildered naiveté in the face of Dulcinée’s final rejection. Furlanetto’s voice is dark and rich, a lifetime in an utterance: the death of Quichotte is heartbreaking.

Massenet himself died a little over two years after this opera’s first staging.

If I were to red-pencil through any element of the evening, it would be to excise the clunky elements of Ralph Funicello’s set representing the town and Dulcinée’s house (casa, whatever); they needed either to be much more obviously ‘faux’ or much less. For a story predicated on the blur between imagination and reality, sincerity is all you need. Which is what this production achieves.

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At Arts Centre, Melbourne until May 12. Image: Warwick Fyfe as Sancho Panza and chorus in Opera Australia’s 2018 production of Don Quichotte. Photo by Prudence Upton

READ OUR REVIEW OF THE SYDNEY SEASON OF DON QUICHOTTE HERE

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