French Lessons in Chicago with 'Les Troyens' and 'Don Quichotte'

Monday, December 05, 2016 - 09:45 AM

Clementine Margaine and Ferruccio Fulanetto in Don Quichotte (Todd Rosenberg/Lyric Opera Chicago)

CHICAGO—I am always happy to return here to enjoy this city’s friendly can-do spirit and rich cultural life. My focus during this brief visit is on French opera because the Lyric Opera of Chicago is presenting two sterling productions that make it feel like a golden age in Paris. As it happens, my first lessons in French were not in Paris or Marseille, but as a student in this city whose name I was taught to pronounce en français as shee-ka-GOH.

Regular readers know I prefer not to write reviews but rather, when possible, to shine an enthusiastic light on something special going on. They know too of my adoration for Berlioz. Such is my bond with Hector that he is the only composer I refer to by his first name.

We know that a segment of the opera-going public are “Ring-nuts” who save their money to travel far and wide to hear Wagner’s tetralogy. But there is a lesser-known community that arrives in a city whenever Berlioz’s incomparable Les Troyens receives a rare staging. I have run into many of them here from everywhere, including a large contingent from New York.

Les Troyens comes to the Met every 10 years in the “3” year (1973, 1983, 1993, 2003, 2013 ...) because Hector was born in 1803. A current production is shared by Covent Garden, La Scala and San Francisco, where I saw it last year with Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandre, Corey Bix (standing in for Bryan Hymel) as Énee and what was called Susan Graham’s last appearance as Didon, a role she owns.

The Lyric Opera of Chicago is presenting its first Troyens with a cast that includes Christine Goerke as Cassandre and Brandon Jovanovich in the daunting part of Énee, both splendidly taking on these roles for the first time. When the mezzo originally scheduled to sing Didon withdrew from the production, Susan Graham was approached to play the Queen of Carthage and once more she was glorious.

Sir Andrew Davis led a passionate orchestral account of the extraordinary score, the Lyric’s chorus did its best work, the entire cast was excellent and, in most ways, Tim Albery’s production served the dramatic narrative nobly.

Many people who came to Chicago for Les Troyens also attended a splendid performance of Jules Massenet’s seldom-staged Don Quichotte, based on a libretto by Henri Cain, inspired by a stage adaptation by Jacques Le Lorrain of the 1615 novel by Cervantes. The opera is not a literal telling of the book but, rather, focuses on certain episodes in the play (including the Don’s encounter with bandits and his metaphorical tipping at windmills).

Don Quichotte (1910) was Massenet’s last success as an opera composer, though he wrote three more works in quick succession before he died in 1912. I have a fondness for Cleopatre, which came after Don Quichotte, and think it would prove a wonderful vehicle for Elina Garanča or Joyce DiDonato.

The narrative details of Massenet’s Don Quichotte score are very specific and draw from many sources, including Moorish-inflected Spanish melodies and from liturgical music. The libretto is poetic and romantic without being flowery. The production, created by San Diego Opera, is traditional and compact, yet wonderfully allows the story to unfold. The stage director Matthew Ozawa and his team of Ralph Funicello (sets), Missy West (costumes) and Chris Maravich (lighting) did exemplary work.

In the title role, Ferruccio Furlanetto follows in the tradition of great basses from Fyodor Chaliapin (who sang the premiere in Monte Carlo), Nicolai Ghiaurov, José van Dam and Samuel Ramey in making the Knight Errant a role in which he can indelibly impart his vast range of gifts to create an unforgettable performance. I had goosebumps the whole night.

This was a complex portrayal rather than a tintype, one in which the Italian bass drew from music, text, the production and what must be a strong connection to the iconic character from one of the first great novels. Seldom, anywhere, have I been in such a quiet opera audience as they hung on his every word, note and gesture. His death scene was tender and beautiful, the stuff of genuine tragedy, because the audience had fallen in love with Quichotte just as Dulcinée and Sancho Panza come to do in the opera.

Sir Andrew Davis led a ravishing performance of the score, which included a cello solo that made me think of the famous meditation for violin from Massenet’s Thaïs. Clémentine Margaine made a beautiful and idiomatic Dulcinée whose independent yet overconfident spirit reminded me of the character of Adina in L’Elisir d’Amore. Nicola Alaimo’s portrayal of Sancho got stronger throughout the performance. The character is rather like Leporello in relation to Don Giovanni, except that the servant in Don Quichotte loves rather than fears his master. A couple of years ago, Quinn Kelsey gave an outstanding performance as Sancho in a Toronto production that starred Furlanetto and Anita Rachvelishvili.

During the performance, I found myself thinking of the title character of Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac, which Massenet and his librettist surely knew well. Cyrano, like Don Quixote, is a courtly yet reticent romantic dreamer who loves an unattainable woman. In both stories the woman only appreciates the older man’s worth, and what she has lost, after he is gone. (The Met will present Franco Alfano’s opera based on Cyrano next May).

The Metropolitan Opera has not staged Don Quichotte since 1926 with Chaliapin. While it is always great to see Furlanetto there in his marvelous portrayals in Don Carlo, Ernani and Simon Boccanegra, New York audiences have been deprived of his peerless artistry in roles such as Boris Godunov and Quichotte. I wish the Met could see its way clear to forego the umpteenth revival of a tiresome production of a standard repertory opera and instead present the San Diego/Chicago production of Don Quichotte, reuniting Furlanetto and Maestro Davis.

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Comments [9]

Steve from Palo Alto, CA

I traveled from California to see the Chicago Les Troyens, and despite the glorious performances of Susan Graham and Christine Goerke I was severely disappointed by the elimination of nearly a half hour of Berlioz' glorious music. Why no comment on the complete elimination of the Act III dance sequence, the loss of much of the Act IV dance music, half of Iopas' aria and the septet, plus the many small segments and second verses that were deleted? Those of us who really venerate this masterpiece cringe at the loss of all of these treasures. And the night I was there we had to suffer through Corey Bix' shouted approximation of the pitches of Enee's role when he substituted for Brandon Jovanovich.

Dec. 17 2016 11:45 PM
Geo. from St. Louis, MO

Forgot to include an additional general comment, related to the relative paucity of stagings of JM's 'Don Quichotte'. Besides the obvious fact that the opera requires a singer who can inhabit the title role, the opera itself isn't the most dramatically gripping. It's rather mellow, to put it one way (some might say 'autumnal'), even for an opera in 5 rather short acts that runs just over 2.5 hours. It's not a long opera in terms of time, but it rather feels longer than it is.

Also, there isn't a great deal in the way of dramatic action, and in all honesty, the most dramatically compelling and active scene is, in some ways, the harshest scene in the opera. This is in Act IV, after Don Quichotte has returned the necklace to Dulcinee, and then proclaims his wish to marry her. She laughs at the idea, as does the party crowd, which pretty much breaks the Don's heart. On the surface, it sounds cruel. The catch is that Dulcinee is correct, and honest, if in a harsh way, given that this is what it takes to wake up Don Quichotte to reality (again, rather like Roger Kaiser).

Oh, and to the gratuitous commenters who like to take cheap shots at Peter Gelb, the Met, and directors with what they ignorantly describe as 'Eurotrash' concepts (you mean like Bartlett Sher, an American?): how about staying on topic?

Dec. 14 2016 01:18 PM
CHARLES POWELL from Astoria,NY

Thanks, Fred yet again for keeping us informed of 'other' performances than what is on at the Met.I suppose no one remembers a beautiful production of the Don that the late lamented City Opera mounted for Samuel Ramey.
One of my all time favorite singers whether it was the Massenet Don Quichotte/Attila or Mefistofele. No the Met will bring it back when we have all passed away and yet another Euro trash director will be foisted on the luckless audience that are still around.

Dec. 06 2016 08:28 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

Apologies to Madison from Manhatten... I completely misunderstood your comment and so I didn't get the point that you were making sarcastically. For me, the idea of concept productions in opera rather than traditional ones of which I've seen or heard of, is one of the two hot-button issues with me. On the positive side, the other debatable hot-button issue is my favoring the old-fashioned seating plan with the first violins on the left and the seconds to the conductor's right, just as is done by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic today. But that's another story.

Dec. 06 2016 08:02 PM
Geo. from St. Louis, MO

I saw the Lyric Opera staging of "Don Quichotte". It is indeed a very fine production, solid staging, very much in period (there's no other way, practically speaking), with strong work from the three leads, Furlanetto, Margaine and Alaimo, as well as the chorus and orchestra, as Mr. Plotkin noted.

Interestingly, I had different thoughts when seeing Mr. Furlanetto as the Don in action, as to reminders of someone else. Not Cyrano de Bergerac, but rather, the person who recently disrupted the Metropolitan Opera with spreading human ashes in the Met Opera's orchestra pit. In both cases, the fictional Don Quichotte and the actual Roger Kaiser, you have people with their heads in the clouds, oblivious to reality, and acting on their erroneous thoughts without a thought as to the possible consequences. On stage, it can be funny and/or touching. In real life, the consequences can be (and will be) terrible.

Dec. 06 2016 11:47 AM
Madison from Manhattan

Les,
I,of course,agree with you 100%. It seems I wasn't clear that my comment is a totally sarcastic one emphasizing the idiotic productions which Peter Gelb has foisted on us.I can no longer attend some of my favorite operas because of these moronic updates,e.g. Rigoletto,Faust,Ballo,Manon Lescaut & Traviata. I hope if they do bring Don Quixote back to the Met, Peter Gelb realizes I'm being sarcastic and doesn't put Don Quichotte in a panzer...but and don't quote me on this, I've heard rumors that the new Turandot will be updated to the cultural revolution and a large photo montage of Mao will be the backdrop. Turandot's executed suitors will be anti-Mao dissidents.

Dec. 06 2016 09:57 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

I take exception to the comment that no one wishes to see "Don Quichotte" in its traditional 16th century setting and costumes. In addition to the outstanding cast and conducting described, the fact that there is no concept production makes it all the more sad that the Metropolitan Opera isn't staging it. It would be wonderful if "Les Troyens" with the cast described would also be staged at the Met, but without director's concepts that plague almost all of the Met's current productions from "Salome'" to "Manon Lescaut" to a ridiculous updating of "Gianni Schicchi" complete with the sound of a flushing commode a few years ago, to a "La Sonnambula" that was intended to be a rehearsal of the opera. When will the vision of the composer and librettist(s)yet again be considered paramount rather than any director's imaginative distortion. Thankfully, we in the radio audience are spared such travesties and banalities. Maybe when that day arrives, the Met will start to make money again. As an aside, there's a recording of a 1957 RAI Milan performance of "Don Quichotte" with Boris Christoff in the title role, Teresa Berganza as Dulcine'e and Carlo Badioli as Sancho Panza conducted by Alfredo Simonetto. If personal and familial health problems weren't an issue, I'd have been one in the Lyric Opera of Chicago audience for both operas.

Dec. 06 2016 05:31 AM
Madison from Manhattan

Hi Fred,
Nobody wants to go to an opera to see the cast prancing around dressed like it's 1615 with the lead character attacking windmills with a long lance. I've heard the Met is interested in an updated Konzept which changes the setting to the 1930s Spanish civil war in which Quichotte attacks the windmills on a Nazi supplied Panzer while a huge downstage video screen shows a massive air attack by Junker 2 bombers. To save money, they could use some of the costumes from Carmen and Manon Lescaut.

Dec. 05 2016 10:52 PM
Vera from St.Petersburg

Great impressions! Thank you Fred. Even if I've heard Don Quichotte with Ferruccio Furlanetto several times in St.Petersburg and other places I would love to see it at the Met.

Dec. 05 2016 04:18 PM

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