First things first: Forget Cervantes. Even if you’re one of the vast majority who have always really meant to settle down and read Miguel de Cervantes’ immense early 17th centiury novel, Don Quixote, but have somehow never gotten round to it, forget everything you’ve heard about it and its author. Jules Massenet and his librettist Henri Cain based their version of the story of the Spanish gentleman driven mad by dreams of chivalric adventure on a 1904 play called "The Knight with the Long Face," which trims away all the well-known story that doesn’t fit the framework of conventional sentimental comedy-melodrama.
The opera premiered in 1910, two years before Massenet's death. It takes things still farther from the novel: Don Quixote’s dream-woman Dulcinea becomes a small-town flirt (it’s not made clear whether she’s a pay-for-play girl or has “independent means”); the sorrowful knight is just one of the beaux who crowd around her. There are serenades by moonight, castanets and flamenco, a band of brigands about as menacing as the Pirates of Penzance. Pretty insignificant stuff, on the whole, but good operas have been created with worse material.
Massenet, not one of music’s heavy lifters, does surprisingly well with his uninspiring material. After a first act of exposition heavily larded with folkloric fiddle-de-dee, the composer finds his vein in wih a virtuoso orchestral depiction of the Don’s battle with the windmills, closely followed by another remarkably “modern-sounding” musical rendering of the hero’s obsession.
The librettist’s relentless portrayal of Quixote as the sweetest, noblest madman in all la Mancha (St. Francis, in fact, but in love with a tart) doesn’t give his composer a lot of latitude for character-portrayal, but the music Massenet comes up with is never less than serviceable and often a good deal more, even when he can’t resist providing harmonium accompaniment for a prayer.
Unfortunately, all his hard work is up against one of those physical productions which, though this side of actively offensive, is little more than an obstacle course for the performers and distraction for the audience. Someone has had the bright idea of referencing the obsession with literature that brought on the Don’s distraction by constructing the set entirely out of books: giant leather-bound tomes, stacked and teetering, dwarf the performers, force them to clamber about, and entail long and distracting stage-waits while they rumble into new positions for the next scene, to no noticable positive effect.
Musically things are in much better hands. Massenet’s brief score (five acts in less than two hours) abounds in lovely orchestral colors which make up a good deal for the composer’s lack of melodic flair, and debutant guest conductor Carlos Montanaro gets lovely playing from the orchestra. The comprimario roles — Dulcinée’s quartet of lovers (SATB, with the high male parts taken as almost always in 19th century French opera by women), the bandit leader purified by the Don’s saintly behavior — are adequately taken.
As the Don’s servant Sancho Panza, the Argentinian Eduardo Chama (previously seen here af Falstaff, Don Pasquale, and Leporello), sang well and carried out his function of comic relief without mugging or schtick. The audience adored him, but the overall tone of the drama is so thick with sanctimony that a far less gifted singer could have earned equal applause. The dance episodes, created by Sara de Luis for herself and Raúl Salcedo, sizzle with energy.
I wish I could be more positive about the performances of the two principals. Malgorzata Walewska’s voice is to my ear more plummy contralto than mezzo-soprano: The role of Dulcinea seems to call for the sort of voice Rossini wanted for his semi-soubrette heroines like Rosina. Massenet wrote Quichotte for the legendary Russian basso Chaliapin, whose voice (there are many recordings) had a combined weight and flexibility few bassos can even dream of. Chaliapin was also an immensely gifted actor, as his almost non-singing impersonation of Quixote in J.W. Pabst’s neglected film version shows us.
John Relyea, a frequent performer here of late (he is also to play the title role in Verdi’s early, zany, and wonderful "Attila" — as in the Hun — next season) has a big enough bass to project the role. But to my ear his French diction is so clotted that the subtle but insistent link between vocalizing and declamation that is never missing in French opera goes completely missing. The problem is not that we can’t understand what he’s saying; it’s that the way French blurs out of his mouth blurs the musical line, too.
The same problem mars Ms. Walewska’s performance. The weighty voice that makes such heavy work of the roulades that adorn many of her speeches also make hash of her diction: a character clearly modeled on the mercurial Violetta of Verdi comes off sounding more like the ominous gypsy Azucena in the same composer’s "Il Trovatore."
Non-Francophones can score in the French operatic repertory: Mary Garden (the Met’s first Dulcinea in 1914) was the toast of Paris; Chaliapin, like many Russians of his day, was essentially bilingual. And thanks to the unremitting labors of the American conductor William Christie, a whole generation of singers (the American Danielle de Niese, the Englishman Paul Agnew, and many more) now effortlessly hold the stage of the Opèra Comique and Palais Garnier beside the finest native performers.
Perhaps audiences for the second Seattle Opera cast (the German mezzo Daniela Sindram, the American Richard Bernstein as Sancho) will hear more idiomatic performances; the Quichotte, Nicolas Cavallier, is a francophone born and bred.
If you go: Seattle Opera's production of Massenet's "Don Quichotte" runs through March 12. For video preview and to order tickets, go to the Seattle Opera website.