Review: Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Masterful “Don Quixote” – San Diego Opera, April 5, 2014

The San Diego Opera revived its 2009 production of Massenet’s “Don Quichotte” (translated into the Spanish and English as  “Don Quixote”, the more familiar name for Cervantes’ caricature of the elderly would-be knight-errant).

Massenet’s opera, loosely based on episodes suggested by Cervantes’ epic, was presented again as a vehicle for Ferruccio Furlanetto, arguably the pre-eminent contemporary portrayer of Massenet’s knight [For my previous review, see: Furlanetto, Campbell Lead Compelling Revival of Massenet’s “Don Quixote” – San Diego Opera February 14, 2009.]

[Below: Don Quixote (Ferruccio Furlanetto, holding lance); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Created in 1910, near the end of Massenet’s life, “Don Quisote” was associated with two great early 20th century bassos, the French Vanni Marcoux and the Russian Fyodor Chaliapin.

With a lushly Romantic score, that did not fit the 20th century orthodoxies for contemporary works, it was rarely performed until interest in it was revived for its potential as a dramatic vehicle for internationally ranked bassos.

American audiences saw Samuel Ramey’s Don Quixote in the 1990s, 21st century audiences have experienced Ferruccio Furlanetto’s.

[Below: Eduardo Chama as Sancho Panza; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Massenet’s Man of La Mancha

Massenet has distilled a simple plot from Cervantes’ sprawling classic.

Quixote, accompanied by his squire, Sancho Panza, seeks to woo Dulcinée, who, without thinking through the consequences, suggests that he recover a pearl necklace for her that was stolen by the leader of a troop of bandits.

Quixote (after the diversion of jousting with a windmill he mistakes for a giant) encounters the bandits, whose leader finds his demeanor very strange but so inspiring that he gives Dulcinée’s pearl necklace back to Quixote.

Dulcinée is astonished when Quixote returns with the necklace, first laughs at his proposal of marriage, then, seeing that she has hurt him, attempts to assuage his feelings.

Quixote leaves Dulcinée’s villa heartbroken, and, believing that Dulcinée is beckoning from a star, dies.

[Below: Anke Vondung as Dulcinée; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Don Quixote 

One cannot imagine mounting this opera without a world class voice in the lead, but Furlanetto fills that bill elegantly, projecting no simpleton, but a complex, sympathetic figure,

Here, the Italian basso’s full range is effectively employed, beautifully lyrical in Quixote’s serenade Quand apparaissent les étoiles and the final scene as he focuses on the star he imagines contains Dulcinée as Quixote nears death.

Although one cannot characterize Massenet’s Quixote as a comic character, there are comic elements, particularly his fussy swordfight with his rival Juan (humorously played by tenor Simeon Esper) and, in what some will regard as the opera’s most memorable scene, Quixote’s horseback charge into a windmill’s blades.

[Below: Mistaking a cluster of windmills as hostile giants, Don Quixote (Ferruccio Furlanetto, left) informs his squire Sancho Panza (Eduardo Chama, right) that he, Quixote, will attack his foes; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Eduardo Chama’s Sancho Panza

This is the third time that I’ve reviewed a performance of the Argentine bass-baritone Eduardo Chama in the role of Sancho – the production’s 2009 San Diego premiere, noted above, and, as well, a different production (although with San Diego Opera’s costumes) in Seattle [See Masterful Massenet: John Relyea’s Don Quixote at Seattle Opera – February 26, 2011.

Sancho has two big arias – one, suggesting that married men are the true heroes on earth, surviving the torments of women, seems always assured of an ovation, which Chama easily secured. The second is particularly affecting, defending Don Quixote’s honorable life against the savage derision of Dulcinée’s party-goers, earning Chama much-deserved additional applause.

Anke Vondung’s Dulcinée and her “high voiced” suitors

Massenet deliberately intended to balance the low voices required for Quichotte and Sancho with five high voices. Thus, Dulcinée, whose part is written for mezzo-soprano, is pursued by four men, two of whom are sung by tenors and two of whom are sung by sopranos.

German mezzo-soprano Anke Vondung was a stylish Dulcinée, buttressed by an impressive quartet of artists playing four young suitors. The two tenors, Simeon Esper as Juan and Joel Sorensen were excellent in the two larger of the four roles.

[Below: Joel Sorensen (left) as Rodriguez and Simeon Espar (right) as Juan; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


I have occasionally argued that certain roles have been “under-cast” by this or that opera management, needing larger voices or more seasoned artists for the parts being played.

In the case of this “Don Quichotte” there are present two artists whom I consider far beyond the brief roles they have been assigned.

Susannah Biller’s major assignments at the San Francisco Opera [see, for example, World Premiere Review: Patricia Racette’s Gritty “Dolores Claiborne” at San Francisco Opera – September 18, 2013] and Micaela Oeste’s at Washington National Opera [Michael Chioldi, Micaela Oeste Enrich Washington National Opera’s Theatrically Absorbing “Hamlet” – May 22, 2010] are just some of the notable achievements of these two artists. It is a surprise seeing them in these small roles.

[Below: from left to right, Pedro (Micaela Oeste), Dulcinée (Anke Vondung), Garcias (Susannah Biller) and Rodriguez (Joel Sorensen) tend to thoughts of love; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Choreograhy, Conducting and Scenic Design

Massenet’s opera is one of the more successful of the French operas composed after Bizet’s “Carmen”, exploiting the dramas of sunny Spain. Returning to the San Diego Opera to again choreograph “Don Quixote” is flamenco-trained Kristina Cobarrubia. The frequent opportunities for Spanish dancing provided the “local color” that established the opera’s cultural geography.

Returning also as the opera’s conductor was Karen Keltner. The opera was restaged by Keturah Stickman, utilizing the scenic design of Ralph Funicello and Missy West’s cheerful costumes.

[Below: a scene of the Spanish dancers; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


A San Diego Opera Epilogue

Although not a part of a performance review, it should be noted that the beginning of the evening was dramatic in itself.

Since my last report from San Diego [A Star-bright “Ballo in Maschera” – San Diego Opera, March 8, 2014] , the San Diego Opera, announced it would close down after the four performances of “Don Quichotte”. The company had previously announced the 2015 season, which was to be its 50th, but cited a precipitous decline in ticket sales and in donor contributions as the reasons for ending its operations.

The news alarmed opera companies and artists throughout the world, and its implications will be discussed later on these web pages.

However, what happened just before the performance began should be reported. The company’s general director, Ian Campbell, before Conductor Keltner came out to begin the performance, stepped onto stage to address the San Diego audience. At that point shouting, booing and catcalls erupted from  a considerable number of members of the audience, including derogatory shouting at Cambpell.

Demonstrating that the house was divided, a number of persons in the center orchestra section, applauded Campbell (his appearance was a courageous act) and stood to cheer him.

The audience quieted for Campbell to make the point that every seat in the theater was subsidized (the company having reported that the income from ticket sales was now only 36% of the cost of producing the operas) and that the audience should be respectful of the singers and artists performing that evening (which they were).

Whether there was an organized claque, or whether the angry tone of so much of the audence was spontaneous, I was not able to discern (although I suspect that both may be true).

But I have not seen any such demonstrations of audience discontent anywhere in North America. I would not have expected to see it in San Diego, especially taking place during the well-dressed Saturday night series.  More on this at a later date.

What I would have expected, and what did occur, was a resourding ovation at opera’s end. The audience rose spontaneously and immediately when Furlanetto began the curtain calls with a solo bow.

Every member of the cast, particularly Furlanetto and Chama, was warmly applauded – yet another triumphant opera evening in San Diego (perhaps, one of the last).