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'Don Quichotte'

This article was first published at The Classical Review on June 6, 2012.

available at Amazon
Massenet, Don Quichotte, F. Furlanetto, A. Kiknadze, Mariinsky Theater, V. Gergiev

(released on March 13, 2012)
Mariinsky MAR0523 | 111'34"

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Massenet, Don Quichotte, J. van Dam, T. Berganza, Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, M. Plasson
(1992, re-released in 2010)

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Massenet, Don Quichotte (dir. Laurent Pelly), J. van Dam, Théâtre de la Monnaie, M. Minkowski

(released on May 29, 2012)
Massenet must have identified with the knight of the sorrowful countenance from Cervantes’d great novel, featured in one of his final works for the stage, the melancholy and charming Don Quichotte. Just two years before his death, the composer was also in love with his Dulcinée, mezzo-soprano Lucy Arbell, even dedicating his terse but entertaining memoirs (My Recollections, in English) to her.

Massenet was susceptible to the charms of a woman’s voice, having conceived some of his earlier operas (Manon, Esclarmonde, Thaïs) for the American coloratura soprano Sibyl Sanderson, for example, and equally entranced by Lucy Arbell’s lower voice, he made the role of Dulcinée suit it in every way. Even so, Don Quichotte is perhaps better known for its extraordinary bass title role, created by the magnetic Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin at the premiere at the Opéra de Monte Carlo in February 1910. Even as part of an opera not widely recorded, the role has become associated with some of the great bass-baritones of the 20th century, including Gabriel Bacquier, Ruggero Raimondi, and especially José van Dam. This new recording from the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg features the Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto in the role, recorded for the first time.

The creation of Don Quichotte followed an exasperating period for Massenet, recently frustrated in his attempts to produce his opera Bacchus. In his memoirs, Massenet notes that it “came into my life as a soothing balm. I had great need of it.” The sense of ease with the subject matter -- the libretto by Henri Cain was based on a play adaptation of the Cervantes novel by Jacques Le Lorrain -- comes across in the handling of the title role, part buffoon and part Christ-like redeemer. Few scenes in opera are as moving as that at the end of the Third Act, when Don Quichotte blesses the crowd of bandits, a particularly radiant moment (‘Je suis le chevalier errant’).

Some of the musical qualities recall the combination of knightly redemption in Parsifal, for example. Massenet was blessed in the singers he had for the premiere, especially Chaliapin, not mentioned by Massenet in his memoirs, although he was reportedly excellent in the title role. Always focused on his leading lady, Massenet saluted the “curious audacity” of Arbell, who insisted on learning to play the guitar accompaniment of her serenade in the Fourth Act herself, a feat that few Dulcinées, I would wager, have been able to repeat.

Furlanetto, now in his 60s, is still in generally fine voice, with only a tendency to hit the underside of some pitches to criticize. In fact, his tonal quality is, if anything, too robust to make him believable as the skinny old knight. This is only one of the reasons to prefer the José van Dam recording, made at the Halle-aux-grains in Toulouse in fairly good studio sound (and recently re-released by EMI at a budget price, albeit with no printed libretto).

Anna Kiknadze has a more weighty bottom range than Teresa Berganza, who sang opposite van Dam in the EMI recording, but nowhere near the same gleaming high notes or overall power, making Kiknadze often fade into the sonic background. Andrei Serov gives the role of Sancho Pança all of the buffo bluster he can manage, although along with the rest of the cast -- aside from Furlanetto, made up of young singers from the Mariinsky’s training academy -- the French diction leaves something to be desired (another fault by comparison with the mostly French EMI recording), with the exception of Didier Jouanny, who does the honors on the speaking role of the bandit chief.

At the podium, as one expects, Valery Gergiev never met a fast tempo he did not like to push, making some of the crowd scenes a little over-agitated. Among these are the Fourth Act, with its folksy Spanish dances as alluring background to Dulcinée’s sad aria ‘Lorsque le temps d’amour a fui,’ followed by an ensemble scene with her other suitors and friends, with echoes of the big chatter ensembles of Falstaff.

In an interesting side note, Massenet got his musical start as a percussionist, even supporting himself by playing timpani for six years at the Théâtre Lyrique, a fact that makes the use of percussion in his scores interesting. These bright, perky numbers are contrasted with the more elegiac scenes for Don Quichotte, especially the Fifth Act, where an interlude with ardent solo cello leads to the knight’s touching death scene, visited at the end once more by the voice of Dulcinée. Even with some unnecessary stretching of slow sections, however, Gergiev’s timing is only four minutes shorter than that of Michel Plasson on the EMI set. The orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater turns on a dime with its demanding leader, also producing some lovely, ethereal sounds, in the dusk scene that introduces Act III, for example, and the chorus provides the most thrilling vocal moments in this performance.

Two years ago, approaching the age of 70, José van Dam officially retired from singing with a final performance of Don Quichotte, in a production directed by Laurent Pelly, under the baton of Marc Minkowski, at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels. That performance has been released on DVD by Naïve, so the final word on the best version of this beautiful, often overlooked work -- part of an ongoing revival of Massenet’s operas, too long deemed sugary and facile -- will have to wait.

Nicolas Blanmont, Mémorial Van Dam (La Libre Belgique, May 6, 2010)

Other reviews of the José van Dam farewell production, under the baton of Marc Minkowski, at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels

Jules Massenet, My Recollections (dedicated in the English version to Lucy Arbell)

Interviews with Teresa Berganza (Ionarts, March 9, 2005)

Verdi, Falstaff (Mariinsky Opera, 2007)

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