Massenet - Don Quichotte

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday May 16 2010

Conductor: Nicholas Jenkins. Production: Laurent Pelly. Sets: Barbara de Limburg. Costumes: Laurent Pelly. Lighting: Joël Adam. La belle Dulcinée: Silvia Tro Santafé. Don Quichotte: José van Dam. Sancho Panza: Werner Van Mechelen. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.

For his farewell, after 50 years, to his country’s royal opera house, José Van Dam – described in more than one review as a “living national treasure” – chose Don Quichotte. It was either that or Falstaff, I suppose. His lower range is now (indeed has been for some time) fleshless and breathless and his upper range has a husky, “old man’s" sound; only a few notes in the middle ring out from time to time. So this was a Don Quichotte in which often, in duets (I think of the windmill scene), the Don was outshone, vocally, by his younger partners; a Don Quichotte often without its hero. But this is no time, of course, as he bows out, applauded by his fellow countrymen for a lifetime’s achievements, to dwell on his present deficiencies. The acting skills, presence and phrasing are still there; and if the first four acts left us wishing for more, the final scene – the death of the Don – was naturally Van Dam’s finest hour – or finest ten minutes. Even I – in my friends’ view, exasperatingly heartless – was moved and felt tears welling up in my eyes… until Nokia’s ubiquitous “guitar tune” rang out twice in the house, ruining everything. The double beep-beep of an incoming message, a minute or so later, hammered the last nails into Don Quixote’s coffin.

I haven’t had such a catastrophic telephone moment at the opera since Christie publicly berated a woman from the front row of the stalls whose Carmen overture ring-tone destroyed Joyce DiDonato’s spellbinding performance of the great central aria in Händel’s Hercules. A shame Christie wasn’t with us in Brussels last Sunday to bawl out whoever it was this time. Why do people need their phones in the theatre? Mine was back at home in Paris. My neighbours’ were checked in with their coats. Why, having turned them off at the start (La Monnaie asks people to), must people turn them back on at the interval? I suppose it’s illegal to use some kind of scrambling system? But if so, again, why?

Werner Van Mechelen was no doubt helped by Van Dam’s relative weakness, but even so he’s a very sound baritone indeed and will be interesting to watch: perhaps he’ll take over where Van Dam is leaving off. Silvia Tro Santafé has an interesting voice, juicy and rich in timbre with hints of both Berganza and Crespin. If she can make her vocal production more stable and consistent while developing a firmer personality and presence, she too will be well worth keeping an eye (and ear) on. In the pit, Nicholas Jenkins sounded like he’d learnt a lot from Minkowski: his opening bars were strikingly brisk and his conducting throughout, with even a touch of brutality in the “Spanish bits,” made sure that this often contemplative score didn’t fall entirely into wistfulness.

Staging Don Quichotte must be tricky. The whole picaresque epic is condensed into five short scenes, so short that the music lasts little more than two hours. The scenes are so short that little actually happens: they’re practically a suite of tableaux. Pelly opened with Don Q. in 19th century trousers and waistcoat and tie and a dustcoat, in an armchair under a standard lamp in a wallpapered room, reading. To the right, a pile of papers – pages from the many books he’d read, we supposed, rose nearly as high as a small balcony in the wall, where Dulcinea would eventually appear. The chorus were dressed, for the men, in torero-type outfits in the same pattern as the wallpaper, for the women, in paper flamenco dresses: a clever way of suggesting their dreamlike nature.

The “Romanesque” theme (in the French, “literary” sense) was pursued in the following four acts with act one’s pile of pages becoming a dusty Spanish mountain of them for the rest of the work – such a mountain as required the insertion of orchestral interludes or long pauses while the stagehands beavered away behind the curtain. There were, I thought, some weak moments: the bandits weren’t very frightening as gentleman thieves of the Arsène Lupin kind. There were puzzling ones: in act four Dulcinea danced on her balcony above the arid paper landscape with men in black tails and full-size, black horses’ heads (odd, I thought, but maybe another item in the series of Spanish “bullfighting” clichés; toreros, flamenco dresses…). And there were some striking ones, most notably when Don Quichotte bounced around on the end of a waving pole (at nearly 70!) tilting at the giant windmill sails that swept down from behind the proscenium.

Overall I had the feeling that the massive, moonscape sets hindered the action, squeezing it all into a small space at the front and making crowd movements precarious underfoot: it was one of those productions where the chorus members had to queue up to trail in and out, however lively the music. And the scene changes (the mountains, though always massive, changed from act to act) were too long for momentum to be maintained.

Not one of Laurent Pelly’s greatest achievements. But with his Platée and Offenbachs, he has admittedly set standards very high.

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