Opera Australia: Don Quichotte

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Published: 10th May, 2018
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The original Don Quixote by Cervantes has inspired a number of adaptations that in turn have contributed to variety of written, dramatic and musical interpretations of the central character. Opera Australia has brought us the San Diego Opera’s production of Don Quichotte, through revival director John Sheedy. Here we see Jules Massenet’s view of the character through a number of historical lenses, brought magnificently to life through a sensitive production and the masterful performance of the central character by bass Ferruccio Furlanetto.

Massenet’s score is marvellous – from the joyous vitality of the dance passages and the threatening textures of the fights, to the luminous textures of the introspective moments. There is so much to hear in this opera.

The music here is the engine room of the drama throughout. But the opera-goer looking for a big, famous melody or two will find none here. Though the music is very melodic, there’s no time for repetition.  Massenet’s score simply doesn’t have time to dwell; it has too much to contribute to the ongoing drama, going far beyond mere scene setting. Musically it covers an incredible range of expression, from colourful dance rhythms through the gamut of human expressions: passion, melancholy, romance, conflict, steely determination, zeal and despair.

Today, tragedy is a hard sell. People expect to identify with main characters, and fatal flaws are not easy to acknowledge. It is difficult to have much sympathy for such a misguided and deluded character as Quichotte (Don Quixote)– particularly when his behaviour is entirely driven by his own determination to see things differently from what they are.

On the surface of the Don Quixote story, Quichotte is a silly old goat who falls in love with a woman – La Belle Dulcinée (Dulcinea).  She is much too young for him anyway, and the evidence that she only ever really toys with men suggests that she is too shallow for actual love. Even for the more suitable men of her acquaintance, she expresses boredom with “ordinary” lovemaking, instead craving impossible fantasies.

Despite everyone protesting that he’s making a fool of himself, Quichotte flings his all into the pursuit of the errand Dulcinea sends him on, and when he finally returns in almost fatally ruinous condition after meeting all his challenges, Dulcinea and her friends are only impressed to a frustratingly lukewarm degree.

What comes so much to the fore in Massenet’s Don Quichotteis the sense of personal growth in the lead character while on his quest, to the point where I found myself siding with him at the end, thinking “of course these people don’t value what he’s done – they’ve not suffered or struggled with anything!” I really found that this heightening of his achievement is due in part to the structure of Massenet’s score, and the strength of the performance of Ferruccio Furlanetto in the role of Quichotte.

Furlanetto’s voice is thrillingly big and his performance has such depth of nuance and expression and acting capacity that he is riveting throughout. His graduation of tone throughout this opera is such that we are swept up in his development and share in his feeling of never being so alive as when on the journey of his quest.

Dulcinea is played by Sian Pendry. Pendry combines the warmth of the mezzo’s fruity colour with a delightfully clear soprano-like top end – without any apparent shifts through the range – her singing was a delight throughout. Another impressively strong performance came from the always-reliable Warwick Fyfe as Quichotte’s long-suffering servant Sancho Panza. Jonathan McCauley’s chief bandit was truly menacing. Actually, all those playing named characters were impressively strong and nuanced – Graeme Macfarlane, John Longmuir, Jane Ede, Anna Dowsley, Adam Player, Ryan Sharp, Malcolm Ede, and Clifford Plumpton. Onstage guitarist Gerard Mapstone gave the role suitable seductiveness.

The production itself is splendid – visually presented with realistic scenes of Dulcinea’s courtyard and various natural environments. These contrast spectacularly with the nightmarish windmills looming like malevolent giants out of the fog in the famous “tilting at windmills” scene. The combination of ambitious use of stage machinery with projection is brilliantly effective.

Orchestra Victoria under Guilliame Tourniere was as ever the sensitive and apt accomplice for the onstage work.

I came away from this with a heightened respect for the contribution of the composer to illuminating the humanity of the story. I also feel privileged to have seen Furlanetto in the role – clearly a singer at the mature height of his powers. A more masterful performance of this role I cannot imagine.

Melbourne is lucky indeed to have experienced this production.

 

Reviewer Peter Hurley attended the performance of Opera Australia’s Don Quichotte on May 3, 2018, at the State Theatre Arts Centre Melbourne.