Dreaming big – Opera Saratoga’s terrific Man of La Mancha

United StatesUnited States Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion’s Man of La Mancha: Soloists, Opera Saratoga Orchestra / Laura Bergquist (conductor). Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs, NY, 8.7.2021. (RP)

Kelly Glyptis (Aldonza) and Zachary James (Don Quixote)

Director & Choreographer – Lawrence Edelson
Fight director – Michelle Ladd
Projection and Lighting – Barry Steele
Costumes – Glenn Avery Breed
Audio & mixing – Paul Bevan

Captain of the Inquisition / Tenorio – Bradley Bickhardt
Man of the Inquisition / Marco / Dapple (Sancho’s donkey) – Marcus Lee
Man of the Inquisition / Jose/Rocinante (Don Quixote’s horse) – Blake Jennings
Miquel de Cervantes / Don Quixote – Zachary James
Sancho Panza – Brian Yeakley
Governor / Innkeeper – Aidan Smerud
Paco/Padre – Steven Ricks
Anselmo/Barber – Jeremiah Tyson
Pedro – Titus Muzi
Juan – De’Ron McDaniel
Jose – Blake Jennings
Marco – Marcus Lee
Aldonza – Kelly Glyptis
Antonia – Lauren Cook
Housekeeper – Whitney Robinson
Duke / Dr. Sanson Carrasco / Knight of the Mirrors – Joel Balzun
Maria – Jouelle Roberson
Fermina – Laura Soto-Bayomi
Prisoners – Naomi Brigell, Lisa Buhelos

There is only one problem with Opera Saratoga’s terrific production of Man of La Mancha: it ran for just three performances. That’s more than enough to be grateful for in these perilous times for performing arts organizations, but the show deserves to be seen far and wide.

Man of La Mancha opened on Broadway in 1965 and ran until 1971 for a total of 2328 performances. It won five Tony Awards, including best composer and lyricist (Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion) and best musical. The show’s popularity has never waned, but in 2021 it resonates in ways that were unimaginable a short while ago. More than ever, we need that shot of hope and altruism that Man of La Mancha delivers.

Its creators sought neither to create a musical version of Cervantes’s great novel nor the author’s life. Cervantes was indeed caught up in the Spanish Inquisition, but here he wins his freedom and the hearts of his fellow prisoners by telling of the exploits of his greatest creation, Don Quixote.

The self-appointed knight errant clings fast to chivalric virtues, including bravery and service to others, and he is unswerving in his commitment to the ideals of courtly love with its obligation to serve a lady. In this case the object of his chaste devotion is Aldonza, whom he regards with all the gentleness and graciousness that he can muster. Don Quixote instantly rechristens her Dulcinea, seeing the lady in her that no one else, not even she, can perceive.

Brian Yeakley (Sancho Panza) and Zachary James (Don Quixote)

Lawrence Edelson, Opera Saratoga’s artistic and general director, has repeatedly demonstrated his knack for staging opera in the intimate confines of the Little Spa Theater. With Man of La Mancha, he brings the same integrity, cogency and dramatic urgency to a massive stage (the Saratoga Performing Arts Theater seats 5200 people in the amphitheater alone). His concept for Man of La Mancha is traditional, but technology imbues it with freshness and wonder.

Barry Steele brought Edelson’s vision to life through video and projections that create the walls of a huge prison; the vast vistas of the arid plains of La Mancha, complete with windmills; and the inn where Don Quixote meets Aldonza. The velvety blue sky dotted with thousands of twinkling stars is magical. Most impressive of all was the entry of the Knight of the Mirrors with his men, most of whom were digital creations.

The cast that Edelson assembled reminds one of the pure joy of hearing popular musicals sung with classically trained voices. He could have done no better.

Zachary James was superb in the dual roles of Cervantes and Don Quixote. As the former, he was youthful and quick-witted, while he was equal parts dreamer and realist as the knight. With a few daubs of makeup and a change of costume, James was transformed from a man in the prime of his life to the gallant, somewhat doddering knight. Vocally, he commanded the role, always singing with taste and with restraint. ‘To dream the impossible dream’ was a lovely lyrical soliloquy, almost a prayer, and devoid of the histrionics and chest thumping to which it so readily lends itself.

As fine as James was, Kelly Glyptis as Aldonza and Brian Yeakley as Sancho Panza were perhaps even better. Glyptis had the perfect combination of beauty and grit to make Aldonza real: there was fire in her voice as she blazed with rage both at the men who abused her and the old man who idealized her. It was heart breaking to watch her Aldonza rally the dying Don Quixote once more with the beautiful strains of ‘Dulcinea’.

Yeakley was the perfect comedic sidekick, as strong of voice as anyone in the cast. There was no guile in his Sancho Panza, a likable character who, with a knowing smile and a shrug of his shoulders, stood steadfastly by his master.

Other standouts in the cast were Aidan Smerud as the governor of the prison in which Cervantes was held and the innkeeper who dubs Don Quixote as the Knight of the Woeful Countenance. Steven Ricks with his kindly demeanor and gleaming voice was especially winning as the priest singing a psalm over the body of the dead knight. And although she was but briefly in the spotlight, Whitney Robinson as Don Quixote’s housekeeper grabbed it with her vivid stage presence and voice.

The score for the musical is devoid of strings, save for a guitar and double bass, and heavy on woodwinds, brass and percussion. Laura Bergquist led the orchestra in a performance marked by infectious energy. The lyrical moments were tender and beautiful, but it was the joyous romps in Leigh’s score that got the blood pulsing in this performance.

Man of La Mancha, although the product of a more idealistic era, has aged well. Cervantes’s themes are timeless and the score a mastery of melody and color. Only the harmonies of ‘Little Bird, Little Bird’ transport one back to the Sixties. One line, however, prompted a heartier outburst of nervous laughter than it probably did in earlier times. Although we love Don Quixote for his delusions, it’s now unsettling to hear him say ‘that facts are the enemy of truth’.

Rick Perdian

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