Massenet really should have called it "Dulcinee"
L. E. Cantrell | Vancouver, British Columbia Canada | 05/30/2010
(4 out of 5 stars)
EMI France studio recording made on June 23-27, 1992, at Halle-aux-grains, Toulouse.
Pretty good 1990s digital stereo.
DON QUICHOTTE, the Knight of the Woeful Countenance, the world's maddest wise man or the wisest madman, a knight errant of purest heart and questionable ability - Jose van Dam (bass-baritone)
SANCHO PANZA, the servant of servants - Alain Fondary (baritone)
DULCINEE, under her true name of Aldonza, a rather earthly version of a true knight's love - Teresa Berganza (mezzo-soprano)
PEDRO. a member of Aldonza's entourage and half-hearted suitor - Isabelle Vernet (soprano)
GARCIAS, a member of Aldonza's entourage and a half-hearted suitor - Marie-Ange Todorovitch (soprano)
RODRIGUEZ, a member of Aldonza's entourage and half-hearted suitor, a fellow with a romantic/idealistic strain in him - Christian Papis (tenor)
JUAN, a member of Aldonza's entourage and half-hearted suitor, overall an obnoxious twit - Nicola Rivenq (baritone)
BANDIT CHIEF, a sentimentalist - Jean-Claude Barbier (baritone)
BANDITS - Uncredited speaking parts
Michel Plasson with the Choers et Orchestre du Capitole di Toulouse. Violin soloist: Malcolm Stewart. Cello soloist: Guy Rogue. Organ soloist: Robert Gonnella. Guitar soloist: Vicente Pradal.
Printed short essay on the opera by Mike Ashman, dated 2010. Track list that provides timings and identifies singers.
Disk 1 - Acts I, II and III, 68 minutes, 23 seconds.
Disk 2 - Acts IV and V, 46 minutes, 50 seconds.
Disk 3 - Second short essay on the opera. Summary of the plot. Libretto in German, French and English.
Jules Massenet (1842-1912) was an exact contemporary of the great impressionist painters who made Paris the center of a new artistic universe. Like some of the impressionists, he served in the Franco-Prussian war. More fortunate than some of the painters, he survived the war, but he did not create a new musical universe, instead he put something of a final polish on an old one.
He is said to have composed more than seven hundred works, but his lasting fame is based on twenty-five operas. Still very much in the standard repertory and unquestionably masterpieces are "Manon" (1884) and "Werther" (1892, originally in German!). Not forgotten, but hanging on by their toenails at the very edge of the standard repertory are his first big hit,"Le Roi de Lahore" (1877), "Herodiade" (1881), "Esclarmonde" (1889), "Thais" (1898), "La Navarraise" (1894) and "Cendrillon" (1899).
"Don Quichotte" is Massenet's twenty-second opera. This is equivalent to saying that it never has been a great success. It was first performed at the Monte Carlo Opera House in February 1910. The first Don Quichotte was no less than the fabulous Russian bass, Feodor Chaliapin--a singer almost as good as he himself thought he was. (Chaliapin, naturally, quickly became one of the few people that the usually easy-going Massenet came truly to despise.)
In the printed essay that accompanies this set, Mike Ashman writes, "The New York Herald Tribune's Lawrence Gilman did not enjoy Don Quichotte at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1926. 'This intrepid composer ... had the courage to choose as a subject the greatest of tragicomedies ...and did his worst ...turning the marvelous original of Cervantes into dull and feeble travesty'." This attack, Ashman, moans, "sank the work in major American houses for many a year."
With all due respect to Ashman, he gives entirely too much credit to Mr. Gilman. "Don Quichotte" sank virtually without a trace solely on its own merits--or lack of them. To start with, "Don Quichotte" is not based on Cervantes' great novel, "Don Quixote," but upon what must have been a fairly insipid and watered-down French play. In the opera, and presumably in the play, too, Don Quichotte does not do anything in particular; he is merely a figure that everyone is supposed to recognize from the book. In this neutering, he is curiously like his doppelganger in the ballet "Don Quixote," a funny-looking guy who looks on as people do a lot of dancing to Spanish-sounding tunes. The hilariously earthbound Sancho Panza, surely the direct ancestor of Leporello, Figaro and, more distantly, even Jeeves, is reduced to soppy sentimentality. The one adventure of Don Quixote that everyone knows, the encounter with the windmills, is underplayed in the score to the point of near-invisibility.
In fact, the only character in the opera with a spark of life or individuality is Dulcinee/Aldonza. Now this is very peculiar, for Dulcinea never appears on the pages of the novel. She is always a distant presence, the old Knight errant's idealized version of the object of his courtly love. That she happens to be a perfectly ordinary peasant woman is no consequence to the rusty, armor-clad dreamer as a rides along on scrawny Rosinante and the object of not quite unalloyed mirth to the readers of his misadventures. In the opera, however, she is front and center in alluring flesh. She is no longer a simple peasant, but the very hub and focus of the romantic carryings-on of her town. She has an entourage that includes four suitors (two of whom are portrayed by women, something to excite the lurid imaginations of the perpetrators of Regietheater) and is the quondam possessor of a valuable pearl necklace. She is, in fact, very like that curvaceous, sashaying character that Mae West used to portray regularly on the silver screen. It need hardly be added that she also has far and away the best music in the opera.
To say that Dulcinee has the best music in the opera is not to say that the music of Don Quichotte--and Sancho, too--is bad. It's not, but it is not very operatic either. The overwhelming impression that I get from both Don Quichotte and Sancho is that they are a pair of admirable lieder singers who have unaccountably wandered onto the stage of an on-going opera. Of course, there is nothing so subjective as one's personal reaction to pieces of music, but there it is.
One of the reasons that Massenet came to dislike Chaliapin was that the Russian refused to sing the music as Massenet intended it to be sung. Chaliapin may have had his faults, but he was a great singer and a force of nature on stage. I think he would have found Don Quichotte to have been too bland as written and that he would have strained to put a full-blooded Don Quixote on the stage of the Monte Carlo Opera House. That near-invisible battle with the windmill/giants? With Chaliapin on hand, I suspect that it would have been a true spectacle.
All my cavils and quibbling aside, "Don Quichotte" is not a bad opera; it's simply not a great opera. There are certainly enjoyable things to be found in it, most of them coming from Dulcinee. In this particular performance, we have the delightful Teresa Berganza, who gives us just about everything that we might hope from Dulcinee. She is the absolute star of the performance and worth the purchase price all by herself.
Jose Van Dam also sings very well, but in a lieder-like manner. I think he is very close to what Massenet had in mind for the part. From a technical point of view, he is fine from start to finish. From an opera fan's point of view, he isn't ... well, very operatic in any of the overblown senses of that word.
Much the same is true of Alain Fondary as Sancho Panza. But he isn't the Sancho that I want, not the trembling, cowardly, grumbling, improbably loyal and lovable, fat-voiced Sancho who lives in pages of the great book and whom I hear in my own mind.
The rest of the cast, the chorus and the orchestra, all strangers to me, sound perfectly satisfactory as far as I'm concerned.
This is a not-great opera that provides a star part for a great singer, Teresa Berganza. The rest of the cast is solid and, I think, give a performance that would have delighted the composer. That is worth four slightly feeble stars.