By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic
What: “Don Quichotte”
Where: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: Through Dec. 7
For the first time in nearly a quarter century, Lyric Opera of Chicago has brought “Don Quichotte” to the Civic Opera House. This new-to-Chicago production, which premiered at the San Diego Opera, is Jules Massenet’s 1910 work loosely based on Cervantes’ masterwork, “Don Quixote,” and contains just the right measures of silliness, charm, and poignancy.
Lyric has drawn upon the talented Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto to portray the knight errant with a tenuous a grip on reality and a surplus of chivalry. Furlanetto does not paint the title character as a ridiculous fool, but instead makes him both lovable and admirable. He uses his tall, spare frame to good effect, resulting in some splendid comedic moments, not least the wonderful scene where he mistakes windmills for giants and makes war on them.
When singing of his love for Dulcinée in Act I, he is full of gentle longing. The final act is heart-breaking as the knight bravely embraces his coming death. But Furlanetto’s triumph is in the third act, when Don Quichotte is captured by bandits and about to be murdered. Massenet’s music in the knight’s plea to God (“Lord receive my soul, it is not evil) is honest and innocent when delivered by Furlanetto, full of gentle nobility. You can believe that the band of thieves relents, let him go on his way, and give him some stolen lucre to boot. It is no surprise that Don Quichotte is Furlanetto’s favorite role — the color and honor he brings to the part is extraordinary.
In his Lyric debut, baritone Nicola Alaimo is an amusing Sancho. He elicits our laughter as he follows the knight’s exploits while not always understanding what’s going on. He is at his most amusing when singing against women (“How can anyone think anything good of those hussies”) and finds his own power when he upbraids a crowd who mocks Don Quichotte (“Laugh, laugh at this poor idealist”), beautifully extolling his master’s idealism and kindness.
Mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine, also making her Lyric debut, gives us a Dulcinée of weary sophistication. (One of the deviations from Cervantes is that farm girl Dulcinea is replaced by the independent and affluent Dulcinée.) Her voice is deep and hearty in her first aria (“When a woman is twenty”) and she and Furlanetto combine magnificently in Act IV, when she refuses the offer of marriage.
The rest of the cast is filled out primarily by current members of Lyric’s Ryan Center and includes fine outings by Diana Newman (Pedro), Lindsay Metzger (Garcias), Alec Carlson (Juan), and Jonathan Johnson (Rodriguez).
Sir Andrew Davis conducts the Lyric Opera Orchestra and draws out all the elegance of the music. The sense of serenity from the pit is wonderful. The Lyric Opera Chorus (prepared by chorus master Michael Black) offers superb singing as well as entertaining portrayals of Spanish town-folk.
The sets by Ralph Funicello are evocative and beautiful, always capturing the essence of the moment and the music. The windmill scene is enhanced by projections, heightening the peculiarity of these “monsters” seen by the confused and eccentric knight.
The costumes by Missy West are lavish and Don Quichotte’s get-up is a character in itself.
Stage director Matthew Ozawa keeps the action moving and inserts amusing sword fights and some nimble dance moves in just the right places. He makes fine use of Don Quichotte’s horse Rocinante and Sancho’s mule, both life-sized creations on wheels, and the quotations from Cervantes’ novel before each of the acts help to establish the mood. I hasten to add that your mileage may vary with his silent side story featuring small children, but this is a tiny part of the production.
Massenet’s five acts whiz past you in a flash, with this opera clocking in at about two hours and 45 minutes (including intermission). It is highly recommended.