Monday 26 November 2012

Chelsea Opera Group - Don Quichotte

Poster for the first Paris Don Quichotte in 1910
Poster for the first Paris
Don Quichotte in 1910
Most of Massenet's operas are about the female voice, not only does he seem to have been in love with it but many of his works were inspired by his love for particular singers. His infatuation with the soprano Sibyl Sanderson brought a clutch of works written for her in the 1880's and 1890's. Later mezzo-soprano Lucy Arbell would have roles in six of the composer's final operas. These later works were nearly all premiered at Monte Carlo rather than Paris; Massenet seems to have not been able to recapture the Parisian success of his early career. It is from this later period that Don Quichotte dates. Written for the great Russian bass Feodor Chalyiapin, with Lucy Arbell as Dulcinee. It was to prove successful in Monte Carlo and in Paris and would give the composer a late success.

Though Massenet wrote a role for Arbell in the opera, the piece is not really about Dulcinee and its magic comes not from the composer's treatment of the female voice, but in the sympathetic way he treats the Don. There is definitely something of Massenet's own infatuation with Arbell in the opera. (At the time of the premiere he was 68 and she 28). The libretto is by Henri Cain (who wrote a number of librettos for Massenet) and based on a play. It treats both the Don and Dulcinee more gently and more sympathetically than the novel. Dulcinee only appears in two acts (admittedly the two longest), but what gives the opera its poignant flavour are the scenes for just the Don and Sancho Panza, which end with the Don's death.

London has not seen the opera properly since Richard Van Allan sang the role in Ian Judge's magical production for English National Opera (in 1994, London's first professional production since 1912). When the Royal Opera mounted Massenet's Cherubin, there was much lamenting that they had not mounted Don Quichotte to enable Robert Lloyd to sing the role in his home theatre. So, many years later, it was a delight to be able finally to hear Lloyd in the title role when Chelsea Opera Group gave a concert performance of the work on Sunday 25 November at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London's South Bank, conducted by Renato Balsadonna.

It wasn't exactly a concert performance, the cast also included an element of staging which helped to bring out the humour the work. Mezzo-soprano Justina Gringyte sang the role of Dulcinee from memory, and looked highly dramatic clad in a vermilion Spanish style gypsy dress, complete with shawl and fan. In act one she was every inch the flirty beauty, turning more pensive in act four, but still managing to add dance steps to her solo with guitar accompaniment. Robert Lloyd and Donald Maxwell (singing Sancho Panza), were similarly casually clad and though referring to the music, their performances were no less dramatic. Clambering to the stage from the auditorium, interacting with the cast, this was a performance which might only have been semi-staged but it was fully acted.

The opera is not long, under two hours of music. There are two long acts in which the Don arrives at Dulcinee's mansion and is given a quest to retrieve a stolen necklace, and then returns successful only to have his declaration of love dashed, but sensitively in a glorious duet. In between these two, we have the Don tilting at windmills and then taming the bandits by his sheer saintliness (the Don is a far more serious figure than in the book). Then in the final scene, he dies.

Robert Lloyd is now in his early 70's, and his voice inevitably does not have the lustre that it once did. But experience, combined with great artistry and intelligence ensured that we had a profoundly touching and moving performance. It was a telling account of the role, full of small gestures and giving us a highly detailed portrait of the Don. You could imaging the Don's solos being sung with more line and more sheen to the voice. But Lloyd gave us a complete portrait, this was the Don, an old man, in love for the last time and not a little foolish, but still dignified.

Gringyte was magical as Dulcinee, eagerly grasping the opportunities of the lighter solos (including the dance number with guitar accompaniment). But sensitively and touching in her relations with Lloyd in the fourth act, when after telling him that she can never marry, she lets him down in a beautiful duet. Lloyd hit just the right note of knight errantry in his dealings with her. Gringyte's voice has a fascinating timbre, almost resinous at times, which seemed to suit this music to perfection. The was Dulcinee down to her finger tips. Her French diction was also admirable and I could not help wondering what she would be like in some of the other French mezzo-soprano roles, perhaps Ambroise Thomas's Mignon? She is  Jette Parker Young Artist at Covent Garden and I certainly hope that this gives us many more opportunities to hear her.

Donald Maxwell's Sancho Panza was a delightful foil to Lloyd. Fussily intemperate, Panza has a wonderful patter song in act two (which Maxwell handled brilliantly), and the character does rather a lot of running away. But at the end of act 4, when Dulcinee has left and the chorus mock the Don, Panza rises up to heroic proportions and berates them. Massenet gives the baritone a magnificent solo here, and Maxwell showed that for all his mugging, he can still sing a thrillingly heroic line. Then in the final scene, Maxwell was infinitely touching as the Don approached death, supporting the Don so that he could die upright (here Maxwell actually did support Lloyd and the two shared a music stand). Panza could easily degenerate into a comic turn, but Maxwell gave the character heart and soul.

These were the only major characters, the remainder were all smaller ones. Anna Patalong, Clare McCaldin, Paul Curievici and Thorbjorn Gulbandsoy were the quartet of Dulcinee's admirers, generally heard in ensemble the four impressed with the easy way they blended together and enthusiastically fitted into the semi-staged concept. Curievici is a singer that has impressed in the past and he did so here with his dramatic commitment, I hope to hear him again soon.

The bandits were essentially chorus roles, but five were given speaking parts which Piran Legg, Jorge Navarro-Colorado, Dominic Walsh, Michael Copeland and Dominic Kraemer all delivered with aplomb; Kraemer particularly impressing as the bandit chief. Navarro-Colorado and Legg reappeared as two footmen, to hilarious effect.

The Chelsea Opera Group chorus did not have an inordinate amount to do, but they did so with great enthusiasm.

Conductor Renato Balsadonna clearly knows and loves the piece, and he drew some fine playing from the orchestra, whilst ensuring that cast and ensemble kept on the straight and narrow. Besides the prelude, Massenet included two entractes (one with a stunning cello solo). Besides operas, Massenet was a great writer of orchestra music and his writing in this opera was a true delight. Though using a large orchestra, he did so sparingly (the Montecarlo Opera House was after all rather small), the results are attractive, grateful and charming, qualities which the orchestra brought out thus giving a lovely glow to this autumnal score.

Debussy wrote Pelleas et Melisande in 1898, 12 years before the premiere of Don Quichotte. In fact Debussy was only 20 years older than Massenet, but the two seem to belong to entirely different musical worlds. By 1910 Massenet's music must have seemed old hat to many. But we do not now have to worry about such niceties, and can simply appreciate Massenet's late gem. I have to confess that I was in two minds about the opera before the performance. But Balsadonna ensured that the naively sentimental plot was not overdone, and I was charmed and touched.

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