While never reaching the popularity of Manon,
Werther and Thaïs, Massenet’s Don Quichotte
has still secured a foothold in the repertoire – and deservedly
so. Mike Ashman recalls in his liner-notes for this reissue that
it was harshly criticised in some camps, not least the infamous
outburst by Lawrence Gilman in the New York Herald Tribune
in 1926, extensively quoted in the booklet. Everything was bad:
the composer, the librettist, the music – and the ‘courage to
choose as a subject for music the greatest of all tragicomedies
… and … turning the marvellous original of Cervantes into a dull
and feeble travesty – surely the flattest and thinnest libretto
that was ever set to music.’
Is there any truth in this? Gilman must have felt that way and was influential enough to encourage American opera houses to fight shy of the work for years to come. Listened to and preferably seen almost seventy-five years later I have to admit that I can’t share Gilman’s view on the music and can very easily stomach the libretto. Setting Cervantes’ novel to music and expecting to catch every facet of this marvellous work was an impossible task anyway. Good literature rarely becomes good opera libretto material. One could argue that Hofmansthal’s book for Der Rosenkavalier might be fully acceptable to stage without the music but in general all the words in most plays and novels have to be condensed. In this case the opera wasn’t even based on the novel in the first place but on a play by Jacques le Lorrain. It differs from the original with Dulcinée actually appearing in the opera, which undoubtedly makes it a more manageable opera and gives room for some musically exquisite duets.
From Gilman’s review one can easily draw the conclusion that he was no lover of Massenet’s earlier works either: ‘This intrepid composer, gifted with the spiritual distinction of a butler, the compassionate understanding of a telephone girl and the expressive capacity of an amorous tomtit …’ Those who love the music of early and middle Massenet will no doubt find that with advanced age – he was sixty-eight when he wrote Don Quichotte – his tonal palette had paled. Gone to a large extent is the lush and colourful – some listeners would no doubt say ‘oversweet’ - Mantovani-like romanticism. It is replaced with a sparser, more economical use of the orchestra, more reflective and inward. Ashman puts it nicely ‘an opera by older people about older people’. This does not exclude certain passages of the old Massenet. The opening is colourful, powerful and intensely rhythmic with Spanish flavour – to remind the audience who have forgotten where the novel is set. And in the festive opening of act IV there is more of this. But when Dulcinée sings her Alza! Alza! Ne pensons qu’au plaisir d’aimer (CD 2 tr. 4) the orchestra is silent and she accompanies herself on the guitar - on the recording Vicente Pradal is the guitarist. Elsewhere restraint and transparency dominates, not least in the two very beautiful entr’actes (CD 1 tr. 13 and CD 2 tr. 11), both of them little gems, the latter with a noble cello solo. On the other hand Massenet’s melodic vein is as inspired as ever, albeit not as voluptuous as in his masterpieces from the previous decades. Dulcinée’s aria in act IV, Lorsque le temps d’amour a fui (CD 2 tr. 2) and the duet between Dulcinée and Don Quichotte in the same act (CD 2 tr. 8) are as enticing as anything he had written before. The difference is that the autumnal atmosphere is so tangible here.
The final scene, the death of Don Quichotte, (CD 2 tr. 12), though melodically less memorable, is among the most touching scenes in any Massenet opera, and it is movingly sung by José van Dam, restrained and inward but with strong emotions. I couldn’t resist the temptation to search out the old Chaliapin recording from 1927, which has long been a favourite of mine. Chaliapin created the part back in 1910 and no one can possibly know today what he sounded like then. In 1927 he was in his mid-50s, a possible age for Don Quichotte to be when he passed away, and José van Dam was only slightly younger. The great difference between the two singing-actors is – besides the fact that Chaliapin also sings Sancho Panza – that the Russian bass is so much more melodramatic. He invests every word with feeling and meaning – but so does van Dam within a more narrow scope of dynamics and extra-musical means. Both are valid readings and, provided Don Quichotte had immigrant parents, Chaliapin’s forefathers saw the light of dawn on the banks of Volga while van Dam’s mirrored themselves in the Seine. With all respect for Chaliapin’s histrionic skills I believe that Massenet imagined his Don more Gallic, more like van Dam.
Throughout the performance José van Dam sings nobly and with great warmth – and beauty. The voice has aged since his heydays in the 1970s and 1980s but is still a pliant instrument, and one wouldn’t wish a youngish Don anyway. Alain Fondary, sadly under-represented on record, is an excellent Sancho Panza, robust and expressive, his tone quite similar to van Dam’s, so without the libretto it can sometimes be hard to know who is singing. Teresa Berganza is as teasing and lovely as ever and her voice has aged surprisingly little. Only under pressure can we detect some signs of loosening vibrato. And for all her elegance and vocal splendour she can’t quite disguise that she might well be Dulcinée’s mother. But she makes a vivid portrait of the flirtatious 20-year-old in her entrance aria (CD 1 tr. 2).
The suitors of Dulcinée are well sung and acted by excellent singers, of whom Marie-Ange Todorovitch later reached a position among the leading mezzo-sopranos of her generation. Michel Plasson has been a pillar of strength in dozens of recordings of French operas, mostly with his admirable Toulouse forces – and they don’t disappoint here. The recording can’t be faulted and my only complaint is the lack of a printed libretto. It is available on the bonus disc but then I have to listen to the work at my computer, which I don’t particularly like, or print it out myself, which I don’t like either. In forty-five cases out of fifty when I review operas I already own at least one recording with libretto; in this case I didn’t. This also means that I can’t make a comparison with the only alternative version I know of, a Decca recording from the late 1970s, conducted by Kazimierz Kord and with Régine Crespin, Gabriel Bacquier and Nikolai Ghiaurov in the leading roles. It has received good reviews but Crespin seems to have been past her best, which Berganza isn’t. I also presume that Ghiaurov is more Chaliapin-like in his approach to the title role and since the autumnal aspects are so central in this work I would say that José van Dam comes as close to the core of this role as can be imagined. What is beyond doubt is that the opera is worth hearing in either version. Why not try the present one while it is available?