Wexford Festival Opera 2019 Review: Don Quichotte
Massenet’s Masterpiece Receives A Visually, Dramatically & Musically Stunning PresentationBy Alan Neilson
(Photo: Clive Barda)
Massenet’s “Don Quichotte” may not be an opera you would usually associate with Wexford. Judged a success at its premier in Monte Carlo in 1910, in which Chaliapin featured in the title role, it has since struggled to establish itself as part of the mainstream repertoire.
It can, therefore, hardly be deemed a forgotten or rarely performed work; its production at this year’s festival will certainly not be another rediscovery, and to be honest its inclusion seemed a little odd. However, what cannot be in any doubt was the quality of the production, which visually, dramatically and musically was first class.
A five act opera, to a libretto by Henri Cain, and lasting approximately two hours, it successfully captures the spirit of Cervantes’ novel, drawing faithful portraits of Don Quichotte and his trusted servant Sancho Panza. However, it makes little attempt to remain true to the details of the story, apart from Don Quichotte’s attack on the windmills. Dulcinée is no longer the farm girl of the novel, but a small town beauty, with a posse of followers.
The story relates the old knight’s quest to recover Dulcinée’s necklace, stolen by a band of robbers. Stumbling upon the gang he is badly beaten, but nevertheless successfully retrieves it. On returning the necklace to Dulcinée, he asks her to marry him, but she rejects him gently. He is then mercilessly mocked by the townsfolk. The final act sees Don Quichotte dying, watched over by the loyal Sancho, in which he imagines he hears Dulcinée singing.
The director, Rodula Gaitanou, set the work in rural Spain, during the mid 20th century, or at least this was the feel he gave to the staging.
There were elements which belonged to other times in order to contrast the world in which Don Quichotte inhabited with the real world, which also allowed for sword fights and a group of bandits hidden away in the countryside, which would have jarred if given a truly authentic 20th century setting.
The scenographer and costume designer constructed a wonderful staging which evoked the heat, colors and barren landscape of Extremadura, in which each act had its own distinct shape: Act one was set in a small village during festival time, the stage awash with colour and massing crowds, dressed in a multiplicity of local costumes; Act two was dominated by the windmills which Don Quichotte attacks, and from which he is catapulted up into the air; Act three is a lonely spot in which he comes across the bandits, and receives a good beating; Act four finds himself back in the village, with the mocking crowds; while the final act finds Sancho Panza watching over the dying Don Quichotte against a blood red-blue sky, with a silhouetted Dulcinée singing in the background.
The costumes for Don Quichotte and Sancho Panza were typical of the many images that have been made of the pair, with the Don dressed in a flat rimmed metal helmet, brown shirt and breast plate, and Sancho Panza in peasant clothing, in this case a white shirt and brown dungarees. They arrive on an antique motorbike and an old fashioned scooter, which kept breaking down, which not only fitted in nicely with the aesthetic of the presentation and was symbolically apt, but was also appropriately amusing.
It all worked absolutely perfectly. It provided an appropriate and believable context for the drama, contrasting the two very different worlds in which the characters meet, without any extraneous movements of scenery, and was visually stunning.
A large part of the success was also down to the brilliant lighting designs of Simon Coder and the choreography of Luisa Baldinetti. At times, Coder flooded the stage in a blaze of color which conjured the Spanish light of our imaginations, while at other times he darkened the stage to capture the heavier emotional atmosphere of the drama. Baldinetti not only managed the logistics of the crowd scenes well, but also incorporated small detailed interactions between individuals, which gave the scenes depth and a realistic appearance.
Gaitanou’s direction managed to successfully convey the drama in an engaging and meaningful manner, bring the characters and their relationships alive, while visually delighting the audience, but it also managed to deal with each individual act as a story in its own right, carefully building the tension to its climax, so that there was always a sense of completion as the curtain fell. Moreover, it was achieved without letting go of the underlying dynamics, which peak with Don Quichotte’s death in the final act.
Equally First Rate
If the staging was of a very high standard, no less can be said of the musical side, under the direction of the American conductor Timothy Myers, who is making his third appearance at the Wexford Festival. Under his direction, the Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera produced a warm and exciting performance which captured the Spanish coloring of the work, and drew attention to the beauty of Massenet’s score, in which he successfully revealed its textural qualities. The musical interludes, in particular, were wonderfully played and very evocative.
Myers was attentive to the singers requirements, maintaining a tight balance between stage and pit.
In the title role was the Georgian bass, Goderdzi Janelidzi, who made an excellent impression, successfully capturing the nobility of the deluded knight. He has a strong, dark and expressive voice. However, he is also capable of producing delicate and softly delivered singing, which he illustrated to good effect in the Act one serenade of Dulcinée, “Quand apparaissent les étoiles” in which he also showed off a pleasing legato.
Janelidze’s success was evidenced by the sympathy he managed to draw from the audience, which culminated in a masterful display during the final act. As Don Quichotte lies dying, Janelidze’s voice sounded tired and weary, but still managed to retain the nobility and spirit with which he led his life. In an expressive and delicately crafted reading he phrased his lines with a heavy beauty infused with deep feeling, combining first with Sancho, then with Dulcinée in a scene of heartfelt emotion.
Sancho & The Beauty
His servant Sancho Panza was given a sensitive reading by Icelandic bass-baritone, Olafur Sigurdarson. He possesses a very strong and expressive voice, boasting a wide vocal range, with a colorful palette, which he used with intelligence, and supported with his fine acting skills.
His aria, “Riez, allez, riez du pauvre idéologue,” in which he turns on the mocking crowd who are abusing Don Quichotte, was expansively delivered and emotionally gripping. In fact, Sigurdarson’s skill at injecting strong emotions into his singing lay at the heart of his presentation, which found its high point in the final act as he watched over his dying master.
Not that he was any less adept in the lighter sections, in which he plays up his own cowardice or laments the loss of his supper as Don Quichotte forces him to give away their money to the poor. Moreover, he beautifully captured the deep bond he shares with Don Quichotte, one which transcends their unequal status, and lies at the heart of their relationship.
The beautiful Dulcinée was played by the Russian mezzo-soprano, Aigul Akhmetshina. In what was a powerful performance, her strong stage presence enabled to her capture the attention of the audience, as well as that of the local men, who hung on her every word.
Certainly flirtatious, she was a woman in control, which she asserted from the very outset by her commanding entrance, singing the faux Spanish aria, “Alza, la femme,” which showed off the warm sultry color of her voice, as she boasted of her preference for freedom over security and riches, which contained more than a hint of Carmen.
Nor was it a simple one-dimensional portrayal; in rejecting Don Quichotte’s marriage proposal, she was also able to bring out the sensitive side of her character, clothing the lines of her aria “Oui, Je souffre votre tristesse,” with tenderness and sympathy.
All the minor roles were well parted, led by tenor Gavin Ring, in the role of Juan, an admirer of Dulcinée, who ends up having a sword fight with the old knight. He has a well-supported voice with a pleasing timbre, which retains its strength and quality over the whole range. His acting also showed ability, which was nicely aligned to his singing.
The leader of the bandits, Ténébrun, was played by bass Henry Grant Kerswell. He cut a fearsome figure, spitting out rather than singing his words, and appeared to be completely demented, in what was an excellent portrayal. The fact that he eventually decides to spare Don Quichotte, and even ask for his blessing, after having enjoyed torturing him came as no surprise; it was totally in character.
The roles of Pedro, Garcias and Rodriguez were delivered by Gabriele Dundon, Elly Hunter Smith and Dominick Felix, and all sang well.
Not to be outdone, the Chorus of the Wexford Opera Festival, under the direction of Errol Girdlestone also put in a fine performance. The singing was energetic, vibrant and enthusiastic, and did much to enliven the presentation, especially in the colorful first act, but also in Act four as they tormented Don Quichotte.
This may not have been typical Wexford fare, but I cannot believe anyone leaving the theatre would have complained of the fact, for this was a hugely entertaining presentation in which all the elements which went into its production were of the highest quality.