Following the lead of bass superstars from the great Russian Fyodor Chaliapin to the American Samuel Ramey, Italian basso Ferruccio Furlanetto counts the title role of Jules Massenet’s Don Quixote as one of his signature roles. He reprised his Francophone Knight Errant for San Diego Opera Saturday (March 5) to thunderous, well-deserved acclaim at Civic Theatre.
San Diego Opera has been fortunate to hear this great singer in a number of defining roles from Don Giovanni and Mephistopheles (in Gounod’s Faust) to more obscure leads such as Verdi’s early Oberto (Furlanetto’s San Diego debut in 1985) and last season’s Thomas Beckett in Pizzetti’s Murder in the Cathedral. Except for the Metropolitan Opera, Furlanetto has not made himself available to other North American companies, so local opera aficianodos have been doubly blessed by his San Diego partiality.
Although Furlanetto headed a respectable cast in this laudable production, it is still difficult to wax ecstatic about Don Quixote. The late New York Times music critic Donal Henahan described Massenet’s opera as “masterly in a minor way”—well-crafted musically but dramatically vapid. Or as Gertude Stein said of life in her native Oakland, “There is no there, there.”
San Diego Opera Chorus flexed its vocal muscle in a boffo opening village crowd scene, replete with flashy Spanish dancers who ushered Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza on stage with great flourish. When the noble knight then confronted the object of his inflated affection, the fickle Dulcinea, she sent him off to the mountains to retrieve a purloined necklace from evil bandits, in order to prove his worthiness of her favor.
Now there might have been some struggle fighting those bandits to get the necklace back, but Massenet’s librettist Henri Cain had the rustic criminals so taken by Don Quixote’s saintly demeanor that they simply turned over the jewel-encrusted necklace and sent him back to town with their blessings. Back in town, the ungrateful Dulcinea snatched the necklace from her suitor, dismissed him, and quickly returned to the company of her younger suitors, leaving Don Quixote with neither hope nor purpose.
Fortunately, Massenet could write fetching arias, and Furlanetto imbued all of his with a rich, ingratiating sonority that filled the vast Civic Theatre, whether fervently expressing his devotion to Dulcinea or elaborating his philosophical bromides. While Argentine bass-baritone Eduardo Chama handled adroitly his misogynist buffa aria early in the opera, his powerful, scene-closing solo at the end of the fourth act, where he berates Dulcinea’s shallow friends for mocking Don Quixote, gave the production a compelling emotional depth that had been missing all evening.
German mezzo-soprano Anke Vondung projected Dulcinea’s hauteur with apparent ease, but she did not reveal
much empathy. I found her voice dull and monochromatic in mid-range, where Massenet kept her much of the time, and only in the infrequent forays into her brighter upper range did she make us want to hear more from this mezzo. Of Dulcinea’s four young suitors, American tenor Simeon Esper stood out with solid vocal definition and playful repartee.
Always at home in the French repertory, conductor Karen Keltner drew a wide palette of colors from the orchestra and demanded from them cleanly defined textures. The atmospheric entr’acte music late in the opera was heavenly.
Ralph Funicello’s generic Spanish town square and his dark, murky sets for the surrounding countryside were adequate, as were Missy West’s costumes, but his scene with the huge twirling windmills proved brilliant and imaginative. And Marie Barrett’s lighting, especially the tableau of the captured Don and his later star-filled death scene, was graced with deft chiaroscuro effects not unlike an old masters’ oil painting. Kristina Cobarrubia’s lively choreography seemed unusually congruent with the setting and period, and her use of youngsters in comic ways proved endearing.
I cannot end this review without mentioning the real-time drama that opened the evening in Civic Theatre. General and Artistic Director Ian D. Campbell came to the front of the stage to make a few announcements, something he frequently does, especially to encourage patrons to sign up for subscriptions to a new season. He was met with a barrage of boos and catcalls, including many shouts—especially from the balconies—that he should resign. Although some patrons in the front of the hall stood up to applaud the General Director, they were drowned out by the negative hubbub. Campbell’s ostensible intent was to thank those who have supported San Diego Opera with their subscriptions and donations over the company’s 49-year history, a history he is attempting to end without dissent in a few short weeks.
Did he not imgagine that his appearance would bring about such a reaction from a public whose art form was being taken away from them? One long-time Campbell observer told me he thought that Campbell would relish the thought of taunting the audience by appearing before them.
If the recently resolved long lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra is any indication, this saga could continue for some time. Stay tuned.