FRED PLOTKIN is one of America’s foremost experts on opera and has distinguished himself in many fields as a writer, speaker, consultant and as a compelling teacher. He is an expert on everything Italian, the person other so-called Italy experts turn to for definitive information. Fred discovered the concept of "The Renaissance Man" as a small child and has devoted himself to pursuing that ideal as the central role of his life. In a “Public Lives” profile in The New York Times on August 30, 2002, Plotkin was described as "one of those New York word-of-mouth legends, known by the cognoscenti for his renaissance mastery of two seemingly separate disciplines: music and the food of Italy." In the same publication, on May 11, 2006, it was written that "Fred is a New Yorker, but has the soul of an Italian."
French Lessons in Chicago with 'Les Troyens' and 'Don Quichotte'
Monday, December 05, 2016 - 09:45 AM
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.