Quixotic Ride

On Thursday May 22nd Stephen R. Clarke will be lecturing on “Chaliapin: A Portrait in Recordings” as part of the Canadian Opera Company‘s free noon-hour lecture series.  I wonder if Clarke will play any examples from Massenet’s Don Quichotte?  Unfortunately Clarke’s lecture comes near the end of the run of Don Quichotte at the COC, but I‘m very interested to hear what Clarke will play and what he‘ll have to say.

The opera –and of course the role –of Don Quichotte was created for Chaliapin by the composer Jules Massenet, and premiered in 1910.     Don’t confuse his portrayal of Massenet’s creation with his later portrayal in a film made much later.

Although designed explicitly for a great star, Massenet at this time had come a long way from the virtuosic writing in Manon.  The orchestral textures brilliantly stay out of the way, allowing a singing actor a relatively easy ride  (with or without a horse) through the role.  While it’s a clever vehicle for a star, it’s never caught on among the standard rep operas, being a relatively flimsy vehicle lacking any big numbers or memorable arias.

We’ve come a long way since then.

I had the misfortune to blunder into an article in the Toronto Star writing about the Stratford production of Man of la Mancha and the COC Quichotte (“Don Quichotte inspires two very different shows“) , and as a result conflated them in my mind on opening night Friday May 9th.  I don’t think it was a good idea for the COC to encourage this thinking.

Yes, I loved Ferruccio Furlanetto, who gives a very good performance as the Don.

But it’s not good that I was sitting there watching a Massenet opera, thinking it could just as easily be a road-show production of a musical.  The chorus, usually a pillar of COC productions, seemed very uninspired, possibly because at times they’re asked to take on very unsympathetic roles.  There’s a miraculous scene where a camp of bandits –played by the chorus plus Michel Corbeil in a non-singing  role as head bandit–surround the Don, who’s on the verge of being killed, until the Don moves them to a spiritual transformation.   Perhaps Director Linda Brovsky wanted young buff bandits in the front, but it was a bad choice.  Old and grotesque, particularly if they had the tiniest inkling of commitment & dramatic interest in the scene, might have made a difference.  From where I sat, I saw Michel Corbeil persuading me,  surrounded by a bunch of singers who probably miss the magic of the Donizetti & Handel operas they’ve been in over the past few weeks. They posed very nicely, but otherwise seemed altogether static, as they did in other scenes as well.

The set is a ponderous and obvious assembly of books.  While I found the concept moving and beautiful at first (even if it’s been done at the COC let alone everywhere else), that was before being made to sit through a series of long scene-changes that chose to ignore the music Massenet gave us for that purpose (at least two entr‘actes were staged, rather than employing that music to cover the movement of these humongous books).

I won’t say much more about Don Quichotte -as you can tell what I felt– but I do want to address something I’ve been wondering about for months now, namely casting.  I don’t envy the singers because they seem to regularly take roles that seem ill-advised.  Forgive me if this sounds arrogant, and yes I know there are complex political issues underlying casting decisions.

I saw Allyson McHardy do an unbelievably wonderful job singing Dejanira in Handel’s Hercules with Tafelmusik a couple of years ago.  But of course the Sellars Hercules arrived with its cast etched in stone from the previous incarnation, so forget Canadian McHardy it had to be Alice Coote –who I really loved by the way.  Last week McHardy seemed miscast in Donizetti, singing opposite Russell Braun, who also seemed miscast.  Braun is a subtle actor whose skills were wasted in Trovatore the year before as the villainous Count di Luna, just as I felt they were mis-applied in Roberto Devereux.  But Quinn Kelsey would have been amazing in the Donizetti, admittedly a younger man than Braun, but with a fabulous bel canto sound that was totally mis-used in Don Quichotte.  Kelsey was an awesome Rigoletto recently at the Four Seasons Centre with wonderful top notes; but the role of Sancho Panza is a bass baritone. Every time Kelsey ventured above middle C I kept waiting for the voice to ring out: except that’s not how it’s written.  It’s written in a halting style that seems to short-circuit anything melodic, and not so different from what Richard Strauss gave to Sancho Panza, whose music is what you’d expect from a humble servant.

Sorry let me get back to that road show production of the musical I was talking about… remember?  We used to disparage those things as a mediocre product.  But at least when Lion King or Wicked  blow into town they’re not also supported by tax dollars.

There I was, staring at Johannes Debus conducting the mediocre product I watched tonight, starring Ferruccio Furlanetto (who was wonderful), Quinn Kelsey (who was wonderful pretending to be a bass-baritone, stunningly beautiful in that one lyrical prayer in the last act), Anita Rachvelishvili (fairly good in a generic sort of way…sorry to say), the indifferent COC chorus… and I thought it could be a road-show musical.  It was melodramatic and sentimental, and the crowd ate it up, the way they eat up Lion King, and likely will eat up Man of La Mancha at Stratford, and it should have been much better.  The production continues at the Four Seasons Centre until May 24th.

Excuse me as I take refuge in what I consider a brilliant adaptation of Cervantes, namely Richard Strauss’s tone poem.  I feel fairly certain Massenet knew this music, given that he calls upon the cello for one of the most moving of the entr’actes; Strauss‘s tone-poem is a double concerto, where Sancho Panza is the viola and Don Quixote is the cello.  So let’s be clear –before I give you Strauss– that Massenet’s opera is meant as a vehicle, one that the right singer can indeed ride for all it‘s worth.  Furlanetto does a wonderful job.  It could have been better, but maybe that’s asking too much.

This entry was posted in Music and musicology, Opera, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Quixotic Ride

  1. I put off reading your review until I had hit publish on my own. I’m glad it’s not just me.

    • barczablog says:

      I felt very much the same (that is, relieved to see your review this morning…NB i love French opera & Massenet). I do not rejoice in this, i want the COC to prosper. I wonder, maybe this production may make them money, but i believe it will be via a different sort of audience. And maybe i should give the marketing people credit. The audience did eat it up after all.

  2. Pingback: Questions of identity | barczablog

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