Monday 4 November 2019

Massenet - Don Quichotte (Wexford, 2019)

Jules Massenet - Don Quichotte

Wexford Festival Opera, 2019

Timothy Myers, Rodula Gaitanou, Aigul Akhmetshina, Goderdzi Janelidze, Olafur Sigurdarson, Gavan Ring, Gabrielle Dundon, Elly Hunter Smith, Dominick Felix, Thomas Chenhall, René Bloice-Sanders

National Opera House, Wexford - 29 October 2019

Most of Massenet's operas I can take or leave. I wouldn't exactly describe them as workman-like - they're a little better than that, some of them are actually quite beautiful and they always have the potential to aspire to something greater, particularly when you have the opportunity to see them staged and performed live. Workman-like is however never a phrase you would ever think to use in any circumstances to describe Massenet's greater works Werther, Manon and Don Quichotte. Don Quichotte however remains far from being a staple of the main repertoire and, on the basis of this outstanding Wexford production, it surely deserves to be rated higher.

What stands out for me and distinguishes those greater Massenet works is in how the composer succeeds in capturing within the situations a sense of romantic idealism clashing with reality, and there's a deep melancholy associated with this in the music. The music of Don Quichotte is strikingly beautiful but it is not sweet; it's fully aligned with the nature of the Knight Errant and the impossible foolhardy quest of an old man setting out to confront a bunch of bandits on the whim of a woman (or a modern age) undeserving of such purity and idealism. There's a nobility in his pureness of heart, and Massenet taps into that, as does conductor Timothy Myers in a gorgeous account of Don Quichotte that sounded simply ravishing in the acoustics of the National Opera House in Wexford.

So brilliantly was this characteristic of Massenet's music realised that for the first time it struck me how much Don Quixote's journey aligns with the ambition of Orpheus who undertakes another impossible quest on the guidance of Amore, love. There are several scenes where the parallels stood out, in Quixote's writing and composition of a song of love for Dulcinea, in his launching himself at the windmills as if they were demons of the Underworld, and in his confrontation with the bandits who are like furies that he transforms into blessed spirits with the purity of his soul. His return to the land of the living is no less miraculous than that of Orpheus and the reward is similarly double-edged.

In that respect, Don Quichotte could also be seen - as the Orpheus myth has often been treated in opera - as an ode to opera itself, to the creation or belief in a world that is better than the one we live in. Opera elevates life and imbues our human endeavours with just such nobility, but it takes ambition for a work to not only aspire to such heights but also reach them. Monteverdi did it, Gluck did it, Mozart does it in all his operas, but particularly in The Magic Flute, which it now strikes me is essentially another Orphic journey, and Massenet puts that same romantic melancholy to just such an effect here and to an even greater extent than even the heart-rending strains of Werther. There's nothing prosaic, run of the mill or workman-like about it, and potentially it is worthy of sitting alongside those great masterpieces.

Nor wonderfully is there anything workman-like about the Wexford Festival Opera production in terms of musical excellence, singing performances or the stage direction of Rodula Gaitanou. Everything is of the highest quality, also living up to the fundamental nature of the work, showing it for it's true worth. Even the use of lighting and colour by Simon Corder could be seen to feed in and contribute to the whole mood of the piece, a stormy sunset in the background hinting at the end of an era. It was simply - although there's nothing simple about such artistic excellence - outstanding. This was the highlight of the Festival programme as far as I was concerned.

There's a carnival setting that suits Massenet's attempts to inject a little Spanish gypsy music into the opera, but it also marks well the contrast between the sincerity of Don Quixote's view of the old ways and the frivolity of the modern world. Beauty is timeless however and Dulcinea is the star attraction who turns the head of Don Quixote. He arrives on the scene with Sancho Panza on rundown old-fashioned scooter bikes, artefacts (all of them) from another age, one where Quixote believes that chivalry is the only way to behave, particularly towards the fairer sex. It's an idealism that is obviously lacking in the artificial world of the carnival group, their audience and hangers on.

Quixote's quest to uphold his dream of course results in tragic consequences that are simple in their telling and yet memorable for their beauty and wild idealism. "He may be a fool but his heart is sublime", Dulcinea acknowledges when the others mock the Chevalier. His attack on the windmills is one of the essential and memorable scenes in the work and it's superbly realised in Massenet's opera and in the Wexford production. Again it uses a framework set that provides all the necessary means to depict and gain an impression of the construction, artificiality and lack of stability of this world.

It looks marvellous it sounds marvellous. Timothy Myers's conducting and the glorious playing of the Wexford Festival Orchestra captures the romanticism of the score and the melancholy underpinning it with no sense of sweetness or sentimentality. The singing performance are also everything you could hope for, with Olafur Sigurdarson in particular outstanding as Sancho Panza. Goderdzi Janelidze's Don Quixote was also impressive and sympathetically characterised with no need for grandstanding, Aigul Akhmetshina was a soaring Dulcinea and the Wexford Chorus sounded marvellous. It may not be the most obscure work selected for a festival that specialises in rareties, but Don Quichotte is certainly one that deserves greater recognition and Wexford Festival Opera demonstrated perfectly the qualities of this wonderful opera.

Links: Wexford Festival Opera