Opera companions make suggestions. At the interval, mine remarked he hadn’t heard any catchy tunes and maybe that’s why Jules Massenet’s “Don Quixote” hadn’t been performed at San Diego Opera for 40 years. I hummed a few tunes for him and asked, “Didn’t you get those?” Then I suggested that if he’d heard “Don Quixote” as many times as “Tosca” over the past 40 years the tunes would be familiar favorites. As we walked up the hill to the car after the performance, he too was singing “Quixote” melodies.
The primary reason for mounting a new production of “Don Quixote” is one’s leading man. Singing the title role for the first time on this side of the Atlantic, Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto is a knockout, both dramatically and vocally. As an aside, his legs are as shapely as those of Feodor Chaliapin, who originated the role at Monte Carlo Opera Feb. 19, 1910.
Set in the Spanish countryside, the work is in fact filled with gorgeous tunes that wind their ways throughout the entire masterfully orchestrated score (conducted by Karen Keltner), whether the Knight Errant is singing of his lady love Dulcinea (mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves) or challenging windmills with his not-so-brave companion, Sancho Panza (fabulous Argentine bass-baritone Eduardo Chama). It’s enough to send one into paroxysms of joy if one has the slightest gift for melodic imprint, that set of brain functions that makes Mozart so enjoyable: his works are satisfyingly predictable and repetitive. Our brains — or at least mine — love familiarity, which arrives when melody imprints on one’s gray matter.
Henri Cain’s libretto is deeply humane and quietly humorous. Panza is an inept helper who means well and is devoted to his master. We do not laugh at the deluded old man who goes on a quest and mistakes windmills for monsters.
We adore him for his peculiarities and purposefulness. When Quixote is captured and beaten by brigands and tied to scenic designer Ralph Funicello’s bleak, “Godot”-like tree, he prays, “Seigneur, recois mon ame (Oh, lord, receive my soul).” Then Quixote’s bonds fall away and the chief bandit (Herve Blanquart) remarks on the divine fire in Quixote’s face, and all kneel for the knight’s blessing. It’s one of opera’s most beautiful moments.
From the awestruck bandits Quixote recovers Dulcinea’s stolen necklace and hopes that fulfilling her charge will win her heart. In this telling, the woman is not a common strumpet, merely a small-town Dolly Levi, who sings of being older and single and the odd, nameless longing that sets in to insist there is a different kind of love. She’s rather like the Marschallin in “Der Rosenkavalier,” but not nearly so worldly or wise.
Weary of their attentions, Dulcinea is wooed by at least four semi-serious, semi-comic suitors (Joel Sorensen, Brian Register, Laura Portune and Rebecca Skaar) who sing delightfully. One wonders from whence Dulcinea’s obvious largesse comes, especially when she sends one suitor off for “comfort” in another’s arms. Hmm.
Throughout her performance, Graves sinks to vocal coarseness when employing her chest voice, giving it an unpleasant edge not in keeping with her character, unless of course Dulcinea is a bawd. This is more likely bad vocal technique than dramatic interpretation, and it is off-putting in what could be so lovely a performance. After only a moment’s serious consideration of Quixote’s marriage proposal, Dulcinea laughingly rebukes him, “Me marier, Moi!” (“What? Me marry?”). When Quixote crumples visibly, she regrets her cruelty, but the damage is done. The Knight has drained out of him, leaving only a worn shell of a man who forsakes his lance.
Few operas are so affecting and subtle. Massenet made a unique marriage of music and drama in five scenes. Furlanetto and Chama are an extraordinary pair — opera singers that act convincingly and poignantly, understanding fully, as director Ian Campbell does, that quiet moments and still acting can break one’s heart more readily than overblown emoting. Only hearts of stone will remain unaffected by the men’s bond and by their poignant parting, during which Quixote imparts to Panza the island he promised him. It’s truly great theater.
Do not miss this visually arresting, magnificently performed opera. Only two performances remain: 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 20, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22 at the Civic Theatre, 202 C St. For tickets and information, visit www.sdopera.com or call (619) 533-7000.