Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto sings one of his signature roles in Sydney
The image of Cervantes’ mad knight, Don Quixote, is one of the most enduring in western literature, and has inspired musicians, artists and writers for several centuries, ranging from 17th century plays to countless paintings and the popular 1965 musical Man of La Mancha.
But for an opera based on an episodic work so full of imaginative and imaginary adventures, there’s surprisingly little action in Massenet’s 1910 version, with a libretto by Henri Caïn based on a 1904 play. Massenet is more inspired by the image and tragi-comic character of Quixote rather than his many quests, and uses just a few ideas from Cervantes’ writing in this languid piece.
At the centre of the opera is Quixote’s quest to retrieve the beautiful Dulcinea’s stolen necklace from a gang of thieves. Quixote believes that if he can complete this act of chivalry, he will win her heart and hand in marriage. It’s the least of his delusions, but proves to be a particularly costly one.
Really, there are two main reasons you’d book tickets to this production: to hear a relatively rarely performed score and see Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto in action.
Opera Australia has brought in the sets and costumes from a 2009 San Diego Opera production, with revival director Hugh Halliday remounting the opera for local audiences. Halliday uses a group of flamenco dancers to add a bit of movement and has directed a thrilling battle with a few full-sized windmills (this is where the phrase "tilting at windmills" came from). It’s an attractive if not particularly inspiring production – Ralph Funicello’s sets and Missy West’s costumes evoke 17th century Spain with accuracy if not much flair.
Nonetheless, the opera is packed full of melodious and pretty, moving music, delivered by those on stage and in the pit (under conductor Guillaume Tourniaire’s fluid and confident direction) with plenty of verve and precision – the cello solo that precedes the final act is a highlight, delivered with gorgeous colour.
It feels like quite a privilege to hear Furlanetto sing the title role – he has an almost impossibly rich and crisp bass, coupled with a powerful upper register, and he totally immerses himself in the role. As he’s cast aside and overlooked – as quite a few old, white men seem to believe they are – his devastation is palpable.
But the other performers well and truly match Furlanetto’s standard: Russian singer Elena Maximova has performed mezzo-soprano roles throughout her career, but feels very much at home in the lower, lustier contralto territory of the seductive Dulcinée. Local baritone Warwick Fyfe is brilliantly funny and vocally powerful as Quixote’s trusty squire, Sancho Panza. He almost steals the show from under Furlanetto and elevates a serviceable production with some genuinely lively moments.