MASSENET: Don Quichotte (complete opera) – Ferruchio Furlanetto, bass (Don Quichotte) / Anna Kiknadze, mezzo-soprano (Dulcinée) / Andre Serov, bass-baritone (Sancho Pança) / Eleanora Vindau, soprano (Pedro) / Yulia Matochkina, mezzo-soprano (Garcias) Carlos d’Onofrio, tenor (Rodriguez) / Dmitri Koleusko, tenor (Juan) / Soloists’ Ensemble of the Mariinksy Academy of Young Singers / Mariinsky Orchestra – Mariinsky multichannel SACD MAR0523, (two discs) 46:00; 65:34 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi USA] ****1/2:
Jules Massenet is most remembered for his three-hanky operas Manon and Werther, but he was just as comfortable and adept at writing comedies. He cut his operatic teeth on comedy and ended his career with two comic works, Panurge, premiered a year after his death in 1912, and his comedic masterpiece Don Quichotte of 1909. It debuted at the Monte Carlo Opera with the great bass Feodor Chaliapin in the lead role. Unlike Panurge, which pretty much flopped, Don Quichotte was a world-wide hit, and if it’s no longer repertory fare, it still receives enthusiastic revivals from time to time.
Don Quichotte is termed a comédie-héröique since its eponymous hero is not merely a buffoon but is allowed more than a measure of dignity toward the end of the opera. Unlike the hero of Cervantes’ novel, Massenet’s Don Quichotte, sweetly but summarily dismissed by Dulcinée, dies of a broken heart in the moving final scene. In fact, Massenet’s treatment bears little resemblance to Cervantes’. Only one of the Don’s many comical escapades makes it into the opera, the contest with the windmills, which must be a challenge to stage in notable fashion. The key scene in the opera is nowhere to be found in the novel. It takes place in Act III: Quichotte is on his latest quest, tracking down a pack of bandits who have stolen Dulcinée’s necklace. The bandits manage to turn the tables, capturing the sleeping Don. As they prepare for a little violent fun at the Don’s expense, he pleads for mercy, presenting himself as a decent man who has always taken the high road in life. The bandit chief is so overwhelmed by the Don’s plea that he frees him and returns Dulcinée’s necklace to him.
Besides this, in the novel Dulcinée is more fantasy than flesh-and-blood female, but in the opera she has a large role and a fully-shaped personality, one that should elicit hisses from the audience. Hugh Macdonald compares her to Carmen “because she likes admiration more than adoration and sees love, like Carmen, as ‘un oiseau rebelle.’” Actually, I find her much closer in spirit to Scarlet O’Hara, except she’s a Scarlet bereft of an Ashley Wilkes. Like Scarlet, she’s a classy yet heartless flirt, but strangely I find her more sympathetic, though I know we’re supposed to come to admire Scarlet for her growing seriousness of purpose and take-charge demeanor. And there is nothing admirable about Dulcinée. Sympathy for her probably stems from the lovely music that Massenet has written, certainly too good for her—and possibly the fact that she’s at last kinder to her ancient admirer than Scarlet is to her aging husband, Frank Kennedy.
At least Massenet’s opera retains the marked distinctions between the Knight of the Long Countenance and his portly squire Sancho Pança. The two are usually interpreted as metaphors for the soul and the body respectively, the Don tall and thin as an El Greco nobleman, Sancho an appetitive meatball of a man. It’s an unusual but brilliant stroke of Massenet’s to score the roles for two basses, further emphasizing the fact that they’re two halves of the same human identity. Both characters have meaty parts, Sancho given a humdinger of a set piece in Act II, “Comment peut-on penser du bien de ces coquines” (“How can one think well of these coquettes”), in which he takes women to task for their hypocrisy and infidelity.
It’s a fine balancing act that Massenet must maintain, presenting Quichotte alternately as amorous old fool, butt of young folks’ gests, and yet as moving spokesman for the code of chivalry he upholds. His death is truly affecting because we’ve come to feel the world is made poorer by his passing. Massenet does this skillfully, through rich and emotionally engaging music. Along the way, he shows how much a master of local color he is. The opening scene and the party scene from Act IV are splashy colorful affairs in which the Spanish touches are even more successful than in his other Spanish opera, Le Cid.
Though this performance was recorded in chilly St. Petersburg, Valery Gergiev injects real Spanish fire into Massenet’s music. Chorus and orchestra help him burn up the stage in those big group scenes. Gergiev’s international cast ranges from very good to excellent. As Quichotte, Ferruchio Ferlanetto puts perhaps a touch too much quaver in Quichotte’s voice, signifying his age as well as his emotional fervor, but Ferlanetto’s sepulchral bass conveys all the dignity of the Don’s actions in the later acts, and his performance is very satisfying overall. Similarly, I had the feeling that Anna Kiknadze needed to grow into the character of Dulcinée. Her voice seemed a little hard-edged, throaty, at the beginning, but by Act IV, where she’s called on to show both her love of fun as well as the softer side of her nature, I find her very much up to the task. Andre Serov’s Sancho is spot-on throughout, I think, funny in the early going, dignified in his continued faithfulness to his old master. The smaller roles are all well handled, too, especially the bandit king Ténébrun, sung by Didier Jouanny.
The Mariinsky engineers do their typical fine work in what must be an excellent acoustic. The sound is big, immediate, and with very realistic placement of the voices. In the more intimate pages, such as Act V, the sense of depth is also quite authentic. In fact, a realistic perspective rather than an emersion in sound is the hallmark of this listening experience. Gergiev and his forces do Massenet’s opera full justice in its first SACD recording.
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