By Patrick O’Brien
Before he was he, Don Quixote, the lord of La Mancha, a name all of Broadway would know with an underdog Best Musical win, he was he, Don Quichotte, a name all of the French opera-going world knew, snatching one final triumph for composer Jules Massenet from the jaws of defeat and obscurity.
Miguel de Cervantes’s knight errant always seems to pull through like that. Even if he spends his days tilting at windmills, and even if the dictionary has a rather downward look on the word he inspired — “Quixotic: foolishly impractical” — for more than five hundred years, Don Quixote de La Mancha has run a lance through to the very core of humanity, making us tread the thin line between righteousness and insanity.
This Lyric season was years in the making, but an opera balancing righteousness and insanity feels rather serendipitous. That it’s light overall, in tone and content, is also a boon for these increasingly darker and colder days.
In adapting the novel, Massenet and librettist Henri Cain — himself drawing from a stage adaptation by Jacques Le Lorrain — do their fair share of shaving and inventing, putting this at least two degrees separate from Cervantes. There’s no real backstory, no Alonso Quijano, good-hearted hidalgo who read one too many chivalrous tales; here, Don Quichotte simply does what he does. And able squire Sancho Panza is simply along for the ride.
And whereas before, Dulcinea was a peasant woman and the old man’s unseen inspiration, here, she is the seen-and-heard fair maiden, courted daily by several suitors at once, who sets the plot in motion by sending the good knight errant on a seemingly hopeless errand. Really, the only thing that isn’t an invention is the windmill scene. In short, this isn’t Cliffs Notes: The Opera.
But any given Cliffs Notes isn’t nearly this romantic, though, and Sir Andrew Davis makes musica dulce out of Massenet’s unabashed sentimentality. Aided in no small part by Ferluccio Furlanetto in the title role. He’s the linchpin of the whole enterprise, and he holds, even as he foolishly struts about on gangly legs, as fine and rich a character actor as he is a bass. He hits it all: lunacy (the windmills), piety (his aria of supplication, “Seigneur, reçois mon âme, elle n’est pas méchante”), pathos (his interactions with Dulcinea), and simple goodness (”The jewel is nothing, the cause is sacred”).
Nicola Alaimo is an equally fine earthbound Sancho, keeping one eye on his master and another on the nearest tavern, and his rant in Act Four against the villagers’ mockery is born as much of love as it is confusion, such has the old man touched him. And Clémentine Margaine is a sympathetic Dulcinée, even as a woman who basks in luxury and admiration yet wants that nebulous more, and she, too, is as touched and confused as Sancho by the old man’s mysteriously bottomless goodwill.
For all the opera’s invention, director Matthew Ozawa brings it back to its origins by starting each of the five acts with a relevant quote from the novel. It makes for an episodic production, but it does ground the piece in history, in reality. Though it may be up to the opera-goer to decide whether he does enough with the little boy who begins each half of the show reading from (presumably) Cervantes and, so inspired, donning a tin-plate shield and bowl helmet. (It could’ve been a more of a subtle thread throughout the whole evening.) It certainly looks like a storybook onstage, at least, especially Ralph Funicello’s sun-kissed stucco sets and Missy West’s artfully decadent or battered costumes.
Don Quichotte, as a work, is not battered, fortunately. Mid-level, yes, but frank in its sentiment and precise in its effect to depict, at least in part, that glint in the old man’s eye. The journey to achieve everlasting goodness may be asymptotic — impossible, even — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it.
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents “Don Quichotte” through December 7 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N Upper Wacker Drive. More information and tickets are available here.