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Adieu, José van Dam

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

(released on May 29, 2012)
Naïve DR 2147 | 1h51

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

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

available at Amazon
Massenet, Don Quichotte, J. van Dam, T. Berganza, Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, M. Plasson
(1992, re-released in 2010)
The appeal of this new DVD is in the interwoven layers of the perfect twilight moment: an opera about Don Quixote, an old man living with regret; composed with great skill by a composer at the end of a long career; sung by baritone José van Dam, who had made the title role a specialty, returning to it in a grand gesture as he retired from the stage. To celebrate van Dam's career, the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, where the Belgian bass-baritone was trained and educated, mounted this intriguing new production of the opera two years ago, directed by Laurent Pelly. Everything the French director has touched has impressed me, either in person or through the reviews of other critics: Cendrillon, Platée, and La Traviata in Santa Fe; Offenbach's La Belle Hélène at the Théâtre du Châtelet; Les Contes d'Hoffmann and just about every other work by Offenbach for the Opéra de Lyon; Love for Three Oranges in Amsterdam. It was no surprise that Pelly created something that seemed to go against the content of the libretto but ultimately ended up enhancing one's understanding of the work.

Pelly has recast the action of Don Quichotte as the jumbled thoughts of Don Quixote, alone in his study with his books, much as he is described at the end of Cervantes' novel. After his final adventure, bruised and taken with a delirious fever, the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance is brought home on a hay cart. His niece and old servant "lay him down in his ancient bed," writes Cervantes. "He looked upon them very earnestly, and could not conjecture where he was." The women, again horrified at the personal harm brought to the old man by his love of novels of chivalry, rail against "all books of knighthood," beseeching "Heaven to throw down, into the very center of the bottomless pit, the authors of so many lies and ravings." Don Quixote dies in his bed, and Cervantes records the epitaph on his tomb.

Pelly's Don Quichotte first appears seated in a room with a single reading lamp, a book in his hands and a stack of volumes at his side. He is costumed in a suit that looks more or less of the era of the opera's composition, in the late 19th century (costumes designed by Pelly). The sounds of the opening choral scene resonate in his ears, as if imagined. The floor is covered with scattered papers, and as the light expands we see that he is a sort of hoarder, in a barren room next to a pile of books and papers that grows and grows throughout the opera, threatening to engulf the whole stage (sets by Barbara de Limburg). As he reads, his memories seem to flood into the actual space around him, a jumble of episodes mixed together by the librettist, Henri Cain, who took some of the scenes from the play by Jacques Le Lorrain and others directly from the Cervantes novel.

In his brief note on the production, Pelly says that the reading figure could be anyone moved by the story, or by any story -- Don Quixote, the elderly Massenet, the spectator, the author, the director, a character. The conceit allows van Dam to be on stage while the entrance of his character is prepared, until the chorus bursts through the door and he is lost in -- becomes part of -- the memory himself. Although the action never returns to that cluttered study, death is never far from Don Quichotte in this staging -- even the group of bandits, from whom he seeks the return of Dulcinée's stolen necklace, are costumed like undertakers. If you are expecting to see Spanish settings, you will be largely disappointed, although the immense arms of a windmill do make an appearance.

Van Dam, not quite 70 when this was recorded, sings with a voice partially eclipsed by age: the bottom is disappearing, and intonation and stability of tone are weakening, but the performance is wistful and all the more beautiful to hear for it. His Dulcinée, Silvia Tro Santafé, has a musky voice leaning heavily to the bottom and a little strident at the top, often over-spiced with vibrato. The Spanish mezzo-soprano certainly brings a strong Spanish accent to the role, which may bother some listeners. She may not accompany herself on the the character's famous serenade (as the original singer did, much to Massenet's delight), but she has a guitarist costumed with a horse's head to accompany her. That theme of human-animal hybrids is not new to Pelly, a device he used to create a similar oneiric atmosphere in his stagings of Cendrillon and Platée.

Werner van Mechelen is a rough-necked Sancho Panza, with obvious reason to complain in his famous rant against the other sex (one of the rare moments in opera where a character sings in praise of his own ass -- and I don't mean the donkey). Sancho enters as part of Quixote's dream-memories, carrying a picture of his noble donkey, another oneiric trick. Van Mechelen's contribution to the end of Act IV, where Sancho picks up the dejected Don Quichotte, was beautifully tender and sincere. Four young singers from the theater's young artists program were cast as the quartet of suitors (two of them cast as women, cross-dressed), a process that is detailed in an accompanying backstage DVD, emphasizing the next phase of van Dam's career, as teacher and coach.

This feisty, but also melting score is conducted with gentle care by Marc Minkowski, giving the evocation of the love song at the opening of Act III an autumnal glow (and a gorgeous solo cello in the introduction to the fifth act), but also plenty of bite to the fast Spanish passages (with an excellent squeal of piccolo) in the pulsing choral scenes. Minkowski assures tick-tock precision in the windmill scene but lets the score expand and breathe in a way that Gergiev does not in his recent recording. The Monnaie chorus is also in good form, although as always a live stage recording leaves some sound details to be desired: Minkowski's sharp inhalations, stage movement, audience noise, microphone distance issues all interfere. So, if sound quality is the listener's most important issue, van Dam's studio recording, with Teresa Berganza as Dulcinée, is still the best.

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