Sometimes opera can shake us emotionally. Sometimes it can wrench us intellectually. But sometimes opera is just there to delight. To charm, and please. In the same way that some of the most beautiful stories in the Bible are hidden away in books like Ruth, or First Samuel, wonderful operatic experiences can be had outside of the big monuments like La Boheme or Tristan or La Traviata.
And such was the case with the latest opera – the season-ending production– from the Canadian Opera Company, Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte, which opened Friday night. Hardly ever performed today, Massenet’s 1910 retelling of the famous Quixote story, complete with windmills and love affairs and mock battles, produced a COC production that was winning, lively and charming. With superb singing from its principals, this Don Quichotte reminded us that not every experience in the opera house needs to storm the emotional heavens. There’s plenty of artistic joy to be had much closer to Earth.
The reason that Quichotte is seldom performed today is that its principal role, that of the beloved Errant Knight was originally written as a showpiece for the famous Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin, and needs an equally virtuosic performer to make it come alive. Enter one of the great bass singers of our generation, Italian Ferruccio Furlanetto, who has made Quichotte one of his specialties. Furlanetto approached the COC’s Alexander Neef, offering to sing this role, soon after Neef’s appointment as general director of the company in 2008. It’s taken this long for everyone to get their operatic ducks in a row.
It was worth the wait. Interestingly, although most men have low voices, most famous male roles in opera have been written for the tenor range, pitched relatively high. The bass voice has traditionally been seen as too close to the ground, too massive, too basic to be able to show the emotional range needed for a complete operatic role. Furlanetto proves every bit of that conventional wisdom false. His Quichotte was full of subtlety, nuance and tenderness, a voice with perfect control powerfully and beautifully expressing a complete human portrait. He was joined onstage by a very worthy partner, baritone Quinn Kelsey as Sancho Panza, a wonderful foil. If we love Don Quixote, it’s because we see ourselves in him. We see in his courageous, if futile battles against an incomprehensible universe a version of our own situation in the world. Panza we love because he offers to that world the finest human emotion we know, even finer than love – loyalty. And Kelsey, in both his acting and his singing, expressed that loyal devotion to his master in very moving tones. Anita Rachvelishvili made an attractive and expressive Dulcinée (portrayed in this opera as a vampish cross between Bizet’s Carmen and Verdi’s Violetta). The duet between Quichotte and Dulcinée in Act 4 was one of the emotional highlights of the evening, full of tenderness and pain.
Director Linda Brovsky and set designer Donald Eastman have created a clever production concept for Quichotte, which has the set littered with enormous books (reflecting the literary backdrop to the original Cervantes story) around, between and on which the action takes place. Russet reds, burnished golds and dark greens in both sets and costumes reflect the Spanish setting of the story. The COC chorus made themselves a busy, constantly moving presence onstage, and the COC Orchestra (one is tempted to say, as always) under Johannes Debus provided a compelling, sympathetic foundation to the voices and action. A real horse and a real donkey provided transportation for Quichotte and Panza onstage during the production, and, to the relief of most (and disappointment of a few, perhaps) were well-behaved throughout.
As Massenet was writing Quichotte in 1910, Igor Stravinsky was writing his Firebird ballet and Arnold Schoenberg had already begun the path that would lead to his famous 12-tone method. Massenet was of neither of these worlds. If there is a counterpart to Don Quichotte, it is in the Broadway musicals that were beginning to develop at around the same time. Quichotte is greater than most musicals, but it shares with the best of them a sense of familiarity and warm accessibility that makes an audience immediately feel at home, without feeling the strain of overly heavy intellectual or emotional lifting. The COC’s Don Quichotte takes that sense of comfort and raises it to the level of superbly polished art, providing a fine ending to a tumultuous and varied COC season.