“So, you too, the famous Knight of the Rueful Countenance, did not escape the fate of all famous heroes of literature. And you undertook your own travels onto the stage!” wrote one critic who on 19 February 1910 attended the premiere of the opera Don Quichotte in Monte-Carlo. Strictly speaking, the cavalier of La Mancha had already “made it” onto the stage of the opera house, though never before with such triumph. To a great extent, Massenet’s last opera owes this triumph to one legendary performer of the title role – Fyodor Chaliapin. It was specifically for him that the opera was in fact written. And so Don Quichotte is that rare example of an opera for a basso cantante, a “singing bass”. In as much as the role of Sancho Panza is also performed by a low male voice and the role of the fair Dulcinée by a mezzo-soprano, the entire cast of protagonists here forms an ensemble that is unusual in terms of its colours.
The book and the opera are separated by three hundred years: Cervantes’ novel about the cunning hidalgo was published between 1605 and 1615. The connecting link between the late-Renaissance epic and the compact and late-Romantic opera was to come with the French poet Jacques Le Lorrain’s play (1904). In the play, and subsequently in the libretto by Henri Cain, Dulcinée changed utterly: from a village girl she became transformed into a courtesan surrounded by admirers. The love story in Don Quichotte is notable for its heartfelt sincerity: the role of del Toboso the femme fatale was intended for the Parisian singer Lucy Arbell, with whom the sixty-seven-year-old and terminally ill composer was in love. While referring first and foremost to the French play, the creators of the opera nevertheless turned to the Spanish original, including in the libretto the famous scene with the windmills which Le Lorrain had omitted.
Massenet christened his opus a comédie héroïque. As in French grand opera, here there are five – albeit short – acts and myriad crowd scenes with choruses and temperamental dances. Don Quichotte can be equated with the genre of French lyrical opera thanks to its spoken dialogues (in accordance with Massenet’s wishes, these are performed in the language of the country where the opera is being performed). The reigning Spanish flavour in the opera is just one example of the pan-European interest in Spain, and it was the French who set the tone.
In the Mariinsky Theatre’s Don Quichotte the three important lines – Spanish, French and Russian – are subtly woven together. The opera was staged in 2012 by Yannis Kokkos – a French stage director and set designer of Greek descent. He opted to take the book as the dominant element of his stage designs: the opera’s characters literally descend from its pages. But this folio is not just Cervantes’ novel; the book becomes a symbol of an ideal world inhabited by the freakish old man Alonso Quijano. Books feed his imagination, inspire him to great achievements and obscure reality to such a degree that, in the words of Turgenev, “the most undoubted materiality disappears before his eyes, it melts like wax in the fire of his enthusiasm.” It disappears as if in a mist, and it is not by chance that Yannis Kokkos covers the stage with a bluish smoke. The director called the travels of the fantasist knight “a journey without movement in a single space” and “variations of a dream”. The ghostly atmosphere of French fin de siècle is recreated by a theatre of shadows: on the theatre backdrop, the silhouettes of horsemen are projected, one of them astride a fine steed, the other on a donkey. Once on-stage, in comparison with the book the figures of the horse and the donkey seem like tin souvenirs, and Don Quichotte himself conjures up a mental image of a popular Kasli statuette which, in turn, leads to the legendary prototype created by Chaliapin.
The music of the opera, regardless of the tempestuous Spanish rhythms, the click of castanets and the plucking of the guitar, is sad. Difficult themes are touched on in Don Quichotte: getting old, loneliness, dying. Massenet did this, however, without any unnecessary exaltation, with staggering nobility, warmth and simplicity. The emotional power of the final scene, heralded by the heartfelt cello solo, is enough to affect any critic. At one time Chaliapin admitted that on hearing Don Quichotte he had been “crying like a cow”. But in Massenet’s music there is no despair; the death of his hero is Liebestod, death in love, which reunites the dreamer with his trampled ideal to the aching strains of the violin, viola and harp. Khristina Batyushina
World premiere: 19 February 1910, Opéra de Monte-Carlo
Premiere at the State Mariinsky Theatre: 4 April 1919
Premiere of this production: 28 December 2012
Running time 2 hours 30 minutes
The performance has one interval