Furlanetto moving and magnificent in Lyric Opera’s “Don Quichotte”

November 22, 2016
Ferruccio Furlanetto in the title role and Clementine Margaine as Dulcinee in Massenet's "Don Quichotte" at Lyric Opera. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Ferruccio Furlanetto in the title role and Clementine Margaine as Dulcinée in Massenet’s “Don Quichotte” at Lyric Opera. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Lyric Opera’s five-hour production of Berlioz’s epic Les Troyens is understandably making waves these days at 20 North Wacker.

Yet the company’s staging of Massenet’s Don Quichotte, which opened Saturday night, provides even more consistent rewards. With Ferruccio Furlanetto in a moving and magnificent performance as the title knight errant, Lyric’s colorful Quichotte was an unqualified success, a comedy with an emotional impact that touches the heart.

Composer of such runaway successes as Manon, Werther, Thaïs and Cendrillon, Jules Massenet’s operas have become unfashionable in rarefied circles in recent decades. The French composer is often charged with saccharine music, manipulative sentiment and (quelle horreur!) even a deep and abiding Catholic spirituality.

Yet there is a humanity and emotional depth in Massenet’s finest works allied to strikingly beautiful, masterfully orchestrated music that puts the lie to the composer as a mere slick manipulator of cheap emotions.

Massenet’s artful 1910 comédie-héroïque distills the essence of Cervantes’ thousand-page novel to a concise and theatrically effective 110 minutes. We witness Don Quixote’s illusory quests with his faithful yet skeptical companion Sancho Panza, his battle with windmills and encounters with bandits. Most of all the action focuses on the Don’s animating romantic obsession with the beautiful Dulcinea, her rejection of his idealized love, and the knight’s heartbroken devastation and death.

Ferruccio Furlanetto is the world’s leading exponent of the role of the noble yet “extraordinarily strange” Don Quichotte who dreams of heroic feats, chivalric honor and doing good deeds. And, as shown in his memorable Boris Godunov at Lyric in 2011 and again on Saturday night, Furlanetto is among the greatest singing actors on the opera stage today.

The Italian’s bass instrument remains refined, flexible and warm of tone. His singing throughout was tasteful and immaculate, consistently alive to the comic and dramatic opportunities in the score. Furlanetto sang the Don’s prayer to the murderous bandits (“Seigneur, reçois mon âme, elle n’est pas méchante’) with such noble expression and affecting sincerity one could almost believe the thieves’ instant repentance.

Dramatically, Furlanetto succeeded in making a fully rounded character of the knight of the woeful countenance. Far from being a ridiculous caricature, Furlanetto’s Don is charming and lovable in his good-hearted, slightly unhinged delusions, even doing a little delighted dance as he pens love verses to his beloved Dulcinée.

Furlanetto’s touching dignity made the abuse and ridicule by rivals and villagers as hard to watch as the aged Don’s heartbreak and swift decline at Dulcinée’s rejection. One would have to have a heart as stony as the rocks on which the dying Don reclines to not be moved by the opera’s final moments. As his friend Sancho weeps, the Don recalls Dulcinée one last time in Massenet’s most shimmering and otherworldly music, beautifully and most affectingly acted and sung by Furlanetto.

As with its star, the performances by the entire cast and ensemble were largely outstanding–at least as much as one could tell when seated near the back of the house’s front section.

In his company debut, Nicola Alaimo proved wonderfully characterful as the Don’s loyal sidekick. The Italian baritone’s voice sounded a bit raw and underpowered at times even with Sancho’s Act IV denunciation of the townspeople (“Riez, allez riez”) transposed up a whole tone.

Yet Alaimo provided consistent comedic counterpoint as a dubious Papageno-like Everyman in contrast to the Don’s confused heroics. Alaimo was amusing in his aria on the perfidy of women (“Comment peut-on penser du bien de ces coquines’”) and made Sancho’s protective affection for the broken Don contribute to the emotional impact of the final scene.

Also making her house debut was Clémentine Margaine as Dulcinée, the object of the squire’s misplaced romantic obsession. The French mezzo-soprano possesses a rich and flexible voice, and she brought a natural Gallic lilt to the music throughout. Margaine put across the sassy flamenco joie de vivre of “Ne pensons qu’au plaisir d’aimer” and floated a melancholy “Lorsque le temps d’amour a fui” as Dulcinée muses on her empty life of pleasure. While a bit too arch in the opening scene, Margaine tempered the vixenish qualities in the Act IV as she sensitively tried to dispel the Don’s romantic delusions.

Bradley Smoak brought malevolent authority and credible remorse to the mostly spoken role of the Bandit Chief.

As Rodriguez and Juan, romantic rivals for the hand of Dulcinée, Jonathan Johnson and Alec Carlson were suitably mean-spirited swordsmen. Diana Newman and Lindsay Metzger sang well in the trousers roles of Dulcinée’s young admirers Pedro and Garcias. Under the direction of Michael Black, the Lyric Opera Chorus brought customary ensemble polish and lively characterization to the town villagers.

Andrew Davis once again showed himself a Massenet maître, drawing wonderfully elegant and idiomatic playing from the Lyric Opera Orchestra. Lyric’s music director led a vivacious and warm-hearted account of this score, bringing brash vitality to the Spanish episodes, burnished glow to Massenet’s sad-sweet lyrical flights and a touching delicacy to the final scene.

Unlike Lyric’s ghastly revisionist staging of Massenet’s Werther in 2012, Davis this time had a worthy and effective traditional production to work with. Ralph Funicello’s colorful sets (from San Diego Opera) looked a bit shallow on Lyric’s deep stage but offered an evocative Spanish town square and spare yet starry night scenes, with effective projections and a huge onstage windmill for the Don’s ill-fated attack.

Director Matthew Ozawa moved the action capably and efficiently, apart from the chorus-line moves for Dulcinée’s would-be suitors in Act 1, which looked like a high-school pageant.

The Don’s double caught on the windmill vane was a too-obvious dummy, yet the mechanical horse and donkey for the squire and his servant were charming and fit into the staging’s whimsical storybook motif.

Don Quichotte runs through December 7. lyricopera.org; 312-827-5600.

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