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Massenet, Don Quichotte: Seattle Opera, soloists, Carlo Montanaro (conductor), Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, Seattle, 9.3.2011 (BJ)

Director: Linda Brovsky

Sets: Donald Eastman

Costumes: Missy West

Lighting: Connie Yun

Choreographer: Sara de Luis

Chorus Master: Beth Kirchhoff


Don Quichotte: John Relyea

Dulcinée: Malgorzata Walewska

Sancho Panza: Eduardo Chama

Pedro: Jennifer Bromagen

Garcias: Emily Clubb

Rodriguez: Marcus Shelton

Juan: Alex Mansouri

Ténébrun: Jad Kassouf

Suffering as I do from a sort of allergy to the music of Jules Massenet, I saw the prospect of attending Seattle Opera's first-ever production of his Don Quichotte as a matter more of duty than of pleasure. As it turned out, I hated the work much less than I had expected. In fact, though I should still not rate it a masterpiece, considering the long and tedious stretches where nothing of any real music consequence happens, there were also passages that I enjoyed quite a lot, and even the worst elements of the work seem to me preferable to the tiresome sugar-coated meanderings of Manon or Werther.

Some 85 years ago, the New York Tribune's Lawrence Gilman lambasted Don Quichotte's first Metropolitan Opera production in terms that make George Bernard Shaw's most vitriolic tirades seem in comparison like the purrings of an exceptionally amiable pussy-cat. He ascribed to the "intrepid composer" such gifts as "the spiritual distinction of a butler, the compassionate understanding of a telephone girl, and the expressive capacity of an amorous tomtit," and excoriated Massenet's effrontery in choosing as a subject for music "the greatest of all tragi-comedies." His review, which came into my hands from a source that shall be nameless, is great fun to read. But though I hold no particular brief for the tomtit, I think the aspersions my distinguished predecessor in the critical trade cast on butlers and telephone girls are somewhat unfair. And while I certainly feel that Massenet is just about as adequate a musical conduit for the inspired imaginings of Cervantes as Gounod was for the profundities of Goethe's Faust, it is worth remembering that Massenet's "heroic comedy" is descended only indirectly from Cervantes's epoch-making novel, by way of the relatively infinitesimal literary figures of the French cobbler-turned-poet Jacques le Lorraine and of Massenet's librettist Henri Cain.

The story as Massenet and his proximal sources tell it departs widely from the original novel, inevitably omitting countless episodes from Cervantes' teeming narrative, and, in particular, according Dulcinea a far larger role in the proceedings, as a real person rather than an imaginary one that Don Quixote in the novel never actually meets. In rendering what remains, Massenet shows no sign of that quintessentially operatic talent, the ability to evoke character through musical means. A few isolated and fairly exalted utterances of Quixote's aside, the lines that he, Dulcinea, and Sancho Panza are given to sing are more or less interchangeable–any one of them could sing one of the other's music without incongruity.

Thus it remains up to the performers, and above all to the director, to create a sense of dramatic conviction, and in fulfilling this responsibility Linda Brovsky and her collaborators must be credited with something like a triumph. As she showed with her production here of I Puritani three years ago, Brovsky is a director possessed of the regrettably rare capacity to take an opera and make it convincing and indeed moving without disrespecting its composer's and librettist's ideas. Placing the action against a background, designed by Donald Eastman, of gigantic books, quill pens, and the like, and diversifying it with some highly impressive Spanish dancing choreographed by Sara de Luis, she marshals her singers–quite apart from a seemingly stage-savvy horse and donkey–with assurance and clarity, and allows them to come as close to being the characters they represent as the music allows. (It's true that, once or twice, I found the simultaneity of singing in one area of the stage and dancing in another a touch distracting, though you can probably put that down to my general disinclination to multitask–I feel that combinations of this kind inhibit what I would call real attention, but younger members of the audience probably have no such problem.) An imaginative and compelling visual touch was the decoration of the front-of-stage scrim, skillfully lit by Connie Yun to simulate parchment, with a different quotation from Cervantes before each scene.

Making his company debut, conductor Carlo Montanaro demonstrated an equally authoritative mastery of his métier. Interspersed with perhaps a half-dozen outbreaks of tingling fortissimo, much of Massenet's score comes close to rivaling Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande for sheer quietude (if not for expressive intensity), and at both ends of the dynamic spectrum Montanaro drew splendid playing from the orchestra, allowing the strings to shimmer and affording the woodwinds–the principal clarinet especially–time to shape some eloquent solos.

On stage, meanwhile, the cast I saw and heard–I wasn't able to witness both of the Seattle Opera's traditional double casts–acquitted itself to excellent effect. As Dulcinée, the Polish mezzo-soprano Malgorzata Walewska confirmed the strong dramatic impression she made in the company's 2009 Bluebeard's Castle. She neatly sketched the character's somewhat petulant waywardness, particularly in the scene–curiously prophetic of one in that too-often underrated Strauss masterpiece, Arabella–in which a succession of suitors advances on her only to be summarily rebuffed, and she was touchingly straightforward in her gentle consideration for Quichotte's feelings in explaining why she was refusing his proposal of marriage. I don't think coloratura is her strong point–various up–and-down vocal flourishes came across as slides, without any clear separation between the notes–but fortunately there isn't much of that requirement in the score, and and after some less than impeccable singing early on, she returned after the one intermission in much more commanding voice.

The Knight of the Long Countenance and his loyal and long-suffering squire were both very well sung and acted. John Relyea made only intermittent efforts to portray old age–his ability to rise from the floor was definitely that of a young man–but he realized all the other aspects of Quichotte's role beautifully, and sang with his familiar richness of tone and artistry of phrasing. Eduardo Chama was almost too noble a Sancho Panza, but that was surely justified by the way the character reacts to his lord's misfortunes and in the end to his death, and in any case he also touched in the squire's more comical side to good effect. Jennifer Bromagen, Emily Clubb, Marcus Shelton, and Alex Mansouri were a thoroughly convincing quartet of hangers-on, and Jad Kassouf, as the bandit chief Ténébrun, conspired with director Brovsky to make the scene where the bandits are won over by Quichotte's sheer goodness into something truly touching.

Bernard Jacobson

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