Chelsea Opera Group – Massenet’s Don Quichotte

Don Quichotte – Heroic Comedy in five acts to a libretto by Henri Cain after Jacques Le Lorrain’s play based on Cervantes’s novel [concert performance; sung in French with English surtitles]

Don Quichotte – Robert Lloyd
Sancho Panza – Donald Maxwell
Dulcinée – Justina Gringyte
Pedro – Anna Patalong
Garcia – Clare McCaldin
Rodrigues – Paul Curievici
Juan – Thorbjørn Gulbrandsøy
Footmen – Piran Legg & Jorge Navarro-Colorado
Tenebrun – Dominic Kraemer
Four Bandits – Piran Legg, Jorge Navarro-Colorado, Dominic Walsh & Michael Copeland

Chorus & Orchestra of Chelsea Opera Group
Renato Balsadonna

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 25 November, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

It took Chelsea Opera Group a long time to perform its first Massenet opera (Thaïs in 1989). After a slow start its coverage of the composer has gathered pace, perhaps a reflection of the greater respectability the composer, once styled “fille de Gounod”, has acquired in recent years. This was COG’s fifth.

Massenet’s twenty-five operas cover a wide range of works of different lengths and different style; Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame is described as a “miracle”. Historical subjects range alongside mythological ones, searing drama vies with glittering display. Don Quichotte comes from the period near the end of Massenet’s life when he accepted several commissions from Raoul Gunsbourg, impresario of the Monte Carlo Opera. Arguably it is the best of them. Its great advantage is its brevity: five Acts with a duration of around one-hundred minutes; compact, with nothing surplus and no episode too prolonged.

The work has an autobiographical element: Massenet was infatuated with Lucy Arbell, the creator of the role of Dulcinée, a woman many years his junior. The title-role was conceived for Chaliapin but Massenet expressed himself happier with the interpretation of Jean Emile Vanni-Marcoux, the Quichotte of the Paris première a few months later in 1910. We can only speculate the reasons for this but what we know of the great Russian singing-actor is that he not only defined for his generation the roles he performed but grew larger than them. Vanni-Marcoux was probably a more faithful servant of his conception.

With a more experimental attitude to the operatic repertoire Don Quichotte has come back into favour. The availability of such singers as Nicolai Ghiaurov, Samuel Ramey, Ferruccio Furlanetto and José Van Dam has also eased its return to a reasonably secure place in the repertoire and there is plenty of evidence that Massenet, even at the end of his life, had retained the precocious talents that made him an early prodigy. Henri Cain’s libretto is at two removes from Cervantes’s novel. It is described as “Poème de Henri Cain, d’après Le Lorrain”. The characterisation of both the knight himself and Dulcinée is much softened. Lorrain’s Don Quichotte is not the pretentious, gullible, grotesque fraudster of Cervantes’s creation. In Cain’s revision he may be deluded, naive and a relic of the past but this Knight-Errant is the product of a less cynical world, idealistic and sincerely committed to nobly righteous deeds who comes up against a world of unscrupulousness (and reacts to it with an almost Christ-like stoicism). Dulcinée is a classy courtesan rather than a sordid hooker, philosophical, sensitive and compassionate, traits which are contrasted with the cruelty of her suitors. She has qualms of conscience about the way she has led Quichotte on and lets him down gently. The passage in Act Four in which she repents her mocking response to his proposal of marriage, followed by their duet, is one of the most touching of the opera.

Stalwart of Covent Garden and international basso cantante since the 1970s, Robert Lloyd here fulfilled a long-held ambition by taking the rewarding title-role in London for the first time. At 72 the voice needs much more audible and visible management than it did in his prime: sustained phrases in the upper register required some manipulation of the facial muscles which increased the nasality of the sound but the bottom of the voice resonated as of old and conversational passages were articulated with assurance. The text emerged with clarity throughout. His performance grew in impact as the evening progressed, culminating in the duet with Dulcinée and the death scene.

Donald Maxwell was the ideal artist to supply the buffa element of the work and to combine it with pathos. There was something of his recent Holland Park Don Pasquale in a Sancho Panza who was initially defined by his denunciation of women in Act Two. In the first three Acts the relationship between the knight and his squire was distant, even abrasive on the latter’s part. Where the master was a visionary, his companion was pragmatic, twice deserting him. Only in Act Four were they truly united in the expectation of a golden future following Don Quichotte’s success with the bandits. Sancho’s angry defence of his master against the mockery of the crowd was a highpoint, especially when, acting as the mediaeval equivalent of Don Quichotte’s carer, he took him tenderly into his protective arms for his final hours.

Justina Gringyte is a member of The Royal Opera’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme. She sang the role from memory and commanded the platform. Swirling her flame-red Spanish-gypsy frock, using her fan to exert authority, acting and reacting to other characters even when not singing, she balanced dramatic commitment with scrupulous musicianship. Her two reflective arias had true depth and the full, complex character of Dulcinée was displayed: exultant in the adulation of the townspeople, decisive in exerting her influence over the suitors yet contrite for her leading on and teasing of Don Quichotte. The voice is even throughout its considerable range, the timbre distinctive without being idiosyncratic. The chest register is as euphonious as the comfortably produced top and she handled the scale passages with aplomb. Gringyte is one of the most promising mezzo voices I have heard among the younger generation. Dulcinée’s entrance aria owes something to Carmen’s ‘Habañera’. Perhaps we can look forward to her undertaking Bizet’s heroine?

Among the suitors Thorbjørn Gulbrandsøy offered a Juan whose softly romantic approach to wooing Dulcinée was in well-defined contrast to Paul Curievici’s cynicism. Of the bandits Dominic Kraemer, speaking good French, made his mark as the chief bandit who is impressed enough by Don Quichotte’s sermon to hand back Dulcinée’s necklace.

The orchestral playing was variable, the opening of Act One giving notice that these musicians would be most at home in the loud passages, bar a rather rushed tempo. Don Quichotte’s encounter with the windmills was predictably thrilling. Much the same applies to the pastiche Spanish dance music. Further mishaps from the woodwinds in the first entr’acte was balanced by a cello solo before the final scene from Masa Kurokawa which had me close to tears. The Chelsea Opera Chorus was largely confined to acclamation, in which the singers were alert and well-disciplined. As Renato Balsadonna is Chorus Master at the Royal Opera House this was to be expected. Deborah Miles-Johnson prepared the chorus. Perhaps next time COG may give us a really rare Massenet opera, Sapho or Grisélidis.

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