La Scena Musicale

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Don Quichotte a brilliant end to a satisfying COC season (Review)

Don Quichotte a brilliant end to a satisfying COC season (Review)

by Joseph So

With Massenet's Don Quichotte, the final production of the Canadian Opera Company 2013-14 season had its opening Friday evening.  The three operas of the COC spring season this year have been unusually adventurous, as none of them (Hercules, Roberto Devereux and Don Quichotte) are all that frequently performed.  Given the current reported downturn in attendance at many opera houses including the Met, how would this impact on ticket sales?  I am a firm believer that if the product is good and it's properly promoted, the audience will come. Having seen all three shows, I feel that on balance this is the strongest COC spring season, ever.  The pleasures are plentiful - with Don Quichotte, we get to experience the artistry of the great Italian Ferruccio Furlanetto for the first time in one of his signature roles.  His professional debut was in 1974, meaning he's been singing for forty years, an exceptionally long career in opera. Having heard him several times over the years in my travels, it's immensely satisfying to be able to hear this great singer in Canada. The extremely warm reception accorded the whole creative team but particularly Furlanetto was very well deserved.

Bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as Don Quichotte (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Among the creative output of 33 operas by Jules Massenet, Don Quichotte' s position is middling - more or less at the fringes of the standard repertoire, without the popularity of Manon and Werther.  Perhaps its marginality is due to the rather quaint story with few twists and turns, and its strong dose of old-fashioned sentimentality, far removed from the cynical 21st century sensibility towards love and romance. Others have pointed out that by the time Massenet composed this, he was near the end of his life and was arguably not at his most musically and melodically inspired. For better or for worse, opera lovers go to hear high notes, and Don Quichotte is dominated by low voices!  Here you have a bass and a baritone (DQ and Sancho Panza) and a low mezzo (Dulcinee).  A quick glance at the standard repertoire and you won't find many operas with this peculiar distribution of voice types. So it's not surprising that Don Quichotte is ranked below Manon, Werther, and maybe even Thais, Le Cid or Herodiade in the popularity sweepstakes. That being said, when the title role is assumed by a singing actor of stature and experience, in a well thought out production that is faithful to the spirit of the work, this opera will reward the audience with an abundance of pleasurable moments.   

Don Quichotte, Sancho Panza and their beasts of burden (Photo: Michael Cooper)

The title role is often referred to as a star vehicle for a bass of a certain age, from Feodor Chaliapin, for whom Massenet created this work, on down to Nicolai Ghiaurov, Samuel Ramey, Jose van Dam, and now Ferruccio Furlanetto. But it is important to remember Chaliapin was only 37 years old when he sang the premiere in 1910, hardly an old man. And this production from Seattle Opera was previously sung by Canadian bass John Relyea, who is in his early 40's, Perhaps it's because the character is a old man, basses like Ghiaurov, van Dam and Ramey and now Furlanetto take it on in late career, at a point when the voice is still in healthy shape but the singer has the benefit of the accumulated wisdom of life experience.  Based on the opening night performance on Friday, Furlanetto met the multifaceted requirements of this role splendidly. He will turn 65 years old this week during the run in Toronto, and he is sounding decades younger. Sure there was some rustiness in the beginning, but he warmed up quickly and what we got by act two was the Furlanetto of old.   His nuanced characterization of a deceptively simple/naive but in reality a complex character is fascinating. He lavished care and affection on the character, bringing charm, warmth, humour, subtlety, gravitas (with just the right amount of bluster), sentimentality and a world-weary melancholia so much so that the death scene took on dimensions of high tragedy. It was a performance to cherish, honour, and enjoy. 

Ferruccio Furlanetto and Anita Rachvelishvili (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Dulcinee, the object of Don Quichotte's affection, was sung by Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili. Opera fans will remember she was plucked out of the young artist program at La Scala to take on Carmen in that house. COC was fortunate to have her sing three performances of this role here. It's good to have her back as a result of the cancellation of the original Dulcinee, Russian mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova. Rachvelishvili has a huge voice with plenty of squillo.  She sang beautifully, with power and vocal gleam. Ironically, I find her powerful vocalism almost too much of a good thing, making Dulcinee sounding older and a bit too hard-edged, particularly during the Act 4 rejection scene. To be fair, Rachvelishvili scaled the voice down and softened her persona - it was touching. Perhaps one could "blame" Massenet for not composing a soprano Dulcinee or at least a high mezzo, but it is what it is!  When it comes to Quinn Kelsey, there was zero reservation - he is a perfect Sancho Panza.  This singer was a sensational Rigoletto here three seasons ago, and now he is equally impressive, singing with rich, firm tone and acting with great sensitivity. His embracing his master in the death scene was unbearably poignant. The minor roles were all taken with skill, verve and beauty of tone. I am thinking of Rodriguez (Andrew Haji) and Juan (Owen McCausland). In the case of Tenebrun, Michel Corbeil sadly didn't get to sing a note in the role of the bandit chief, but he displayed an impressively clarion speaking voice. 

Death of Don Quichotte (Ferruccio Furlanetto and Quinn Kelsey) (Photo: Michael Cooper)

The Seattle Opera production by Linda Brovsky is a paen to the power of the written word. There was no attempt to modernize, update or re-situate the story, for which I am grateful. The quaint romanticism is presented "straight" without parody or commentary, allowing the music to speak for itself - a supremely sensible approach. The set is made up of giant books in various configurations as necessitated by scene changes. The set includes two extremely well behaved horses - or is one an exceptionally large donkey? An interesting touch is the use of projections. I particularly love the windmills that morph into the quills of the pen, a strikingly symbolic and inspired touch. For me, this transformation signifies the power of poetic imagination that one takes for granted in literature. I hear someone asking after the opera - what kills Don Quichotte?  Why, a broken heart, of course!  Interestingly in the news this week is some researcher in the UK saying that one can actually die from a broken heart.  Excuse me, but science has just realized something that the arts with all its creative imagination have known for centuries. The gorgeous final scene of a starry sky adds just the right atmosphere - full marks for set designer Donald Eastman and lighting designer Connie Yun. Productions of Don Quichotte always involve plenty of dancing, and this one is no exception. The choreography for the five dancers is well conceived and set the right mood at the beginning of the opera. While I don't know for sure, but my guess is that this is COC Music Director Johannes Debus' first Don Quichotte.  We tend to think of him as a German conductor, but his work here amply demonstrates his versatility, drawing lovely sounds from the orchestra. Also of note was the terrific COC chorus. But the evening belonged to Ferruccio Furlanetto. Even at an age when so many singers are contemplating retirement, this singer still has a lot to give. Let's hope the COC will bring him back in the future.  Boris, anyone?

Performances continue on May 14, 17, 20, 22, 24 at the Four Seasons Centre. 

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