Translating Cervantes' Don Quixote into operatic form, despite the novel's rich musical potential as explored by Strauss, de Falla and others, would necessarily require feats of extension unfavourable to the strictures of lyric theatre. Jules Massenet's compact five-act version therefore abjures accuracy in favour of a carnivalesque celebration of the source's themes of the love of farce, and the farce of love.
Massenet's work, in fact, bears only an indirect relation to Cervantes' novel. Here, Dulcinée not only appears, but takes a central role as inspiration behind the knight's exploits, and as mischievous central presence in her own right. Across just under two hours of music, action is restricted to five schematic scenes, which feature only two of the Don's many adventures; the windmill episode, and the encounter with some bandits. The rest of the show is filled out by various embellishments. An introduction establishes the central character and his motivation for adventure, with Dulcinée's admirers singing praise to her, mocking the knight, who nevertheless charms the heroine, agreeing to retrieve for her a necklace stolen by the bandit Ténébrun. A rather touching (failed) love scene in the fourth act anchors Massenet and his librettist Henri Cain’s underlying narrative. The work finishes with a likewise tender short act that leaves the previous bluster behind in favour of an intimate rite of death, observed by the Don and his ever faithful Sancho Panza.
The contraction achieved is somewhat slight, though given the famously picaresque, episodic character of the original, does not necessarily spell ruin for the piece. In fact this Don Quichotte manages quite comfortably to capture the spirit of its source, whilst also offering a convincing marshalling of operatic form, and a wide range of musical flourishes, that make it a very pleasurable theatrical experience. The action may be limited, but the depth and charm of the original is all there, singing through Massenet’s frankly barmy music. The work plays out much more like an operetta than anything else (though spoken dialogue is absent), with a distinct generic and formal freedom, and repetitive, simple structures being its currency. Flamenco (a guitarist accompanies one of the cantilenas), chanson, romantic orchestra music, Gilbert & Sullivan style fanfares and scoring, and straight ahead passages of recitative and coloratura, all feature in the eclectic marvel of the score. As I have said the action is divided into five short acts, and Massenet offers yet more novelty, with a colourful musical interlude between the first and second acts, and preludes before some of the others that tell much of the action to come. The missing detail is all there in the music if one cares to look, and it is that music's dynamic insouciance and its melodic fertility (Massenet spins out aching melody and memorable fanfares with enviable ease) that this work gains credence as a piece of mature, alluring musical theatre.
The La Monnaie production, which sees the director and costume designer Laurent Pelly making his debut in the house, attends to the easy charm of the score with a pleasingly simple production style that yet allows itself humorous flourishes; particularly impressive is the knight’s flailing windmill aerodynamics, and the crowd scenes where Dulcinée’s four suitors — moustachioed and smarmy roles, two of them trouser — contain a blizzard of energy with pointed dramatic focus. The subtle standing lean of the Don in the final act conveys so much, and is typical of the productions smarts and elegance. The long gap between the final two acts, though perhaps unavoidable, was very much to be regretted, however.
In the lead roles, Jennifer Larmore and Lionel Lhote struggled a little to establish convincing human presence in the early stages, despite strong coloratura and a particularly impressive command of French idiom from Larmore, but later they soared; Larmore's love duet with the Don in the fourth act introduced a depth of feeling previously absent from the show, showing us the mix of affection and incredulity that Dulcinée feels, a mix that maps back onto the character's quite complex personification by Larmore. Lhote’s sturdy bass-baritone revealed unexpected tonal shade in his adaptation of the love music soon after, whilst he and the knight’s valediction at the end, with the latter offering Panza an 'isle of dreams', crowned the performance with a rich, affecting pathos. Vincent Le Texier's Don is an appealing assumption; the voice is of a ripe maturity that conveys well the self-conviction of the character, but at the same time the acting is off key and merrily indifferent to reality enough that we come to know very quickly the hopeless and hopeful double edge of the protagonist's misguided character.
The production's greatest asset has to be its conductor, Marc Minkowski, who is on formidable form here. From the off, he drew wild, excited thrusts from his band, with basses sounding as if lit from below, and the rest duly adjusting to their steaming pulse. Sounding like Tchaikovsky on speed, those martial passages in the score that depict the peregrination of the Don and also his somewhat unhinged self-image completely suffused the house. Equally evident, though, was a keen lyric tinge, which came out most persuasively in the final act, where Minkowski held his left hand at constant attention, always dimming the ardour of the tragic music, waiting instead for the explosions of the final chords, which shattered the ears when they finally came. A thoroughly enjoyable, pleasingly confusing, evening in the theatre.
Photos by Johan Jacobs