Don Quichotte takes the Seattle Opera stage

By R.M. Campbell

A 101 years since its premiere in Monte Carlo, Massenet “Don Quichotte” finally made its way to the exotic Northwest where Seattle Opera opened a new production of this “heroic comedy” this weekend at McCaw Hall.

Although the company has traversed a good share of the Massenet canon, plus a couple of rarities thanks to Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge, it had never approached his last work, written only a few years before his death in 1912. It did not attempt to break new ground; rather it presented a production that was often subtle, often striking and allowed the luxurious perfume of the composer’s music a chance to breathe. Two excellent casts were assembled for performances Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, continuing through March 12.

Despite its Spanish origins — Cervantes’ great novel of the same name, “Don Quixote” — the opera is essentially French in its design and flavor, with Spanish accents thrown for local color. Massenet was inspired not by Cervantes directly but a play by a Frenchman, Jacques Le Lorrain, which premiered in Paris in 1904. It was based on the Spanish novel and was, by most accounts, “a sensation.” The opera could not have been written by anyone else. It is pure Massenet, in its warmth, gentleness and flowing lyricism. He makes fun of the knight in search of adventure and love and righting wrongs but only with the softest of arrows. If looked at in the cool of the morning, Don Quixote, or Don Quichotte in the opera, is a fool and a madman: the villagers are not wrong. But his death, which occupies all of the fifth scene, is nonetheless a poignant moment.

The decor by Donald Eastman takes a novel approach, a very simple one that reads better in the theater than on the printed page. It is a kind of concept production: a collection of huge books — maybe 20 feet high and 5 feet wide — wonderfully aged with faux leather. Each scene has the books arranged slightly differently to accommodate different playing surfaces from which people sing, dance and speak. There isn’t much else on stage except for a little furniture and quills and inkpots, also of a giant size. With Connie Yun’s evocative lighting design, this all works very well.

Linda Brovsky has been pretty much a constant presence at Seattle Opera over the past two decades, with “La fille du regiment,” “I puritani” and “Rigoletto,” among others to her credit. “Don Quichotte” is among the most accomplished, Despite its lyrical abundance, this opera has dead spots that need to be filled in and smoothed over. She does this very skillfully, sometimes creating remarkable tableaus, dramatic situations and a naturalistic style. No one stands around posing. Stage action and music are closely connected, one never straying far from the other. A horse and donkey are used throughout as transportation for the knight and his faithful comrade Sancho Panza. Desperado and Millie, from Branch’s Quarter Horses, were not only well-behaved but charming. They looked as if they were having a good time. The little treats fed them must have helped.

Most dancing in opera is boring. It is rarely integrated into the narrative, and the choreography is pretty routine. Not so with Brovsky. There was dancing throughout, sometimes in solos and center stage and sometimes just part of the action. There was a little company of five, headed by Sara de Luis, one of the Seattle’s best-known dancers who also did the choreography, and Raul Salcedo, from Mexico. Although related to flamenco dancing, for which de Luis and Salcedo are widely known, it was not. It was Spanish dance, which is different. De Luis was given several solos, the most striking of which opens the second act. High above the stage, on several books piled together, her dancing sets the flavor for this scene and acts as a counterpoint to Dulcinee’s singing. It is sinuous, sensuous, as smooth as cream. In a black dress, tight to the body, she evoked Spain. So did Salcedo throughout the performance, although he did not have so large a part. A pity. But he made his mark, beginning with the use of a kind of cape in which to fight in the first scene (like a matador with a bull), and his heel work later in the performance. Make no mistake: These are Spanish dancers of the first order.

There was a lot of good singing. The opera was mounted for John Relyea, who has done such effective singing in the past decade, starting with Don Basilio in Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”; Bluebeard, Giorgio (“I puritani”) and the Four Villains were to follow. The role has history: it was created for the celebrated Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin. Relyea, who was part of the Saturday cast, has plenty of weight to his voice, a dramatic sensibility to his acting, yet, he never seemed at home in the role. He lacked personality. The Polish mezzo-soprano Malgorzata Walewska sang Dulcinee. Only last year did she sing Judith opposite Relyea in “Bluebeard’s Castle.” She has the most astonishing voice, with its thick, throaty sound — deep and resonant — that is at once, compelling, mesmerizing, and absolutely individual. She returns next season to sing the title role in “Carmen,” something to anticipate. Eduardo Chama, as Sancho Panza, is a skilled singer and actor, but his relationship with Don Quichotte seemed stiff and too formal.

Nicolas Cavallier was a superb Don Quichotte, with his elegant bass-baritone and detailed acting style. He gave full measure to all the glorious music Massenet wrote for the character. He also was lively in the role but not to the detriment of the character. Richard Bernstein’s Sancho Panza was a good complement, a little funny, loyal and every action filled with details. It was a telling portrait. Daniela Sindram, as
Dulcinee, has a voice that is light, fluent and cool in timbre. She is a convincing actress.

Those in smaller roles should be noted: Jennifer Bromagen Emily Clubb, Marcus Shelton, Alex Mansoori and Jad Kassouf.

Carlo Montanaro made his Seattle Opera debut as the conductor. He has a feeling for line and phrasing, which is necessary to make Massenet’s score work. He never lingered unduly, a deadly trait in this opera. The orchestra played very well, including all the soloists.

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One thought on “Don Quichotte takes the Seattle Opera stage

  1. Another perceptive, discerning, truly excellent review by Mr. Campbell. In my subjective opinion, he is always “right on the button”, including here his comment that Ms. Brovsky’s original, idea-filled, but always werktreue staging helped fill the musical “gaps” that Massenet in his last years left that would otherwise have been soporific. Also, I agree 100% with Campbell on the dancing — always appropriate, always artistically justified and excellent!!
    Thanks, “Gathering Note” for engaging Mr. Campbell to write your opera reviews!!

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