An outstanding production of Massenet’s Don Quichotte by Wexford Festival Opera

IrelandIreland Wexford Festival Opera 2019 [1] – Massenet, Don Quichotte:  Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera / Timothy Myers (conductor), Wexford Opera House, Wexford Opera Festival, Wexford, 25.10.2019. (RB)

Aigul Akhmetshina and Goderdz Janelidze (c) Clive Barda

Director – Rodula Gaitanou
Set & Costume Designer – takis
Lighting Designer – Simon Corder
Choreographer – Luisa Baldinetti
Assistant Director – Ella Marchment

La Belle Dulcinée – Aigul Akhmetshina
Don Quichotte – Goderdzi Janelidze
Sancho – Olafur Sigurdarson
Pedro – Gabrielle Dundon
Garcias – Elly Hunter Smith
Rodriguez – Dominick Felix
Juan – Gavan Ring
Ténébrun – Henry Grant Kerswell

Wexford Opera opened this year’s festival with an unexpected delight – Massenet’s rarely performed Don Quichotte.  This work was written in the twilight years of the composer’s long career and it received its premiere in 1910 at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo.  The title role was intended as a vehicle for the great Russian bass, Feodor Chaliapin.  Henry Cain adapted the libretto from a verse play by Jacques Le Lorrain.  While it retains some of the characters in Cervantes’ original novel, the plot is completely different.  In this version of the story, Dulcinée is transformed from the small-town farm girl in Cervantes’ novel to a more flirtatious, sophisticated figure.  She urges Don Quichotte to recover her stolen necklace from Ténébrun, the bandit chief.  This storyline, which does not occur in Cervantes’ novel, forms the backdrop to much of the action in the opera.  Massenet, however, insisted on adding Don Quichotte’s famous attack on the windmills to the libretto and this takes place in Act II.  Massenet’s highly imaginative score is a model of economy with the opera’s five acts compressed into two hours of music.

The opera is set in the countryside and mountains of 17th-century rural Spain.  Rodula Gaitanou’s production wisely keeps these Spanish settings but updates the action to the 20th century.  Gaitanou uses mobile wooden structures as a backdrop to the action.  In the first act these are transformed into a fun fair, while in the second they become Cervantes’ famous windmills and in the third the fortress of the bandit chief.  Takis’ gorgeous skyscapes provide an entrancing background while the costumes are varied and perfectly suited to the characters (Dulcinée’s dazzling scarlet flamenco dress signals that this is no peasant girl).  Don Quichotte and Sancho Panza enter riding a bicycle and moped respectively rather than the horse and donkey of the original

The cast were firing on all cylinders throughout the performance.  Russian mezzo, Aigul Akhmetshina gave a rounded, sophisticated portrayal of Dulcinée.  We initially see her flirting with the audience with her twisting flamenco arms, then casually manipulating Don Quichotte, haughtily laughing at him when he proposes to marry her before she finally shows a more human, compassionate side.  She brought a sultry richness of tone to Massenet’s vocal line and Act I’s ‘Quand la femme a vingt ans’ was brilliantly executed.  Georgian bass, Goderdzi Janelidze was equally impressive in the title role.  He seemed to find the right balance between weariness and nobility and was particularly impressive in Act III with his sympathetic portrayal of a holy fool playing at being knight errant.  His gorgeous legato lines and rich luminosity of tone were powerful and affecting.

Icelandic baritone, Olafur Sigurdarson, did a brilliant job mining the humour in the score.  However, there was a startling and thrilling change in Act IV when he upbraided the crowd for laughing at Don Quichotte.  This was powerful, unbridled singing which had an enormous emotional impact.  In the final act he showed real affection and tenderness for his dying master.  The supporting cast were uniformly excellent with Dominick Felix and Gavan Ring both giving stand out performances.  The Wexford Festival Chorus were in fine voice throughout and they did a superb job enlivening the crowd scenes.

I was not very familiar with this opera before this production and one of the things which really shone through was Massenet’s masterful orchestration.  Timothy Myers and the Wexford Festival Opera opened with a riot of Spanish colour punctuated with cries of ‘Alza’ from the chorus.  The arresting quality of the playing grabbed the attention of the audience from the outset.  In the feverish climax to Act II, where Don Quichotte gets hoisted into the air on the sail of a windmill, Myers conjured up an intoxicating mixture of excitement and delirium.  The two orchestral interludes were played with the utmost refinement and Adrian Mantu’s cello solo in the second was full of poignant melancholy without being mawkish.

Overall, this was an outstanding production from Wexford Festival Opera and one can only hope that it will lead to many more people listening to this unjustly neglected masterpiece.  Bravo to all the performers.

Robert Beattie                       

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