Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Thursday 14 November 2019

Don Quichotte: Comedy-tragedy mix makes a complex meditation on ageing

National Opera House, Wexford, Until Nov 2

Rich mezzo: Aigul Akhmetshina (arms raised) and chorus in Don Quichotte. Photo by Clive Barda
Rich mezzo: Aigul Akhmetshina (arms raised) and chorus in Don Quichotte. Photo by Clive Barda

Katy Hayes

Frenchman Jules Massenet's Spanish inflected opera debuted in 1910. A late work in the composer's career, it is an adaptation of the canonical early 17th-century novel by Miguel de Cervantes; it is infrequently performed. The libretto by Henri Cain, based on a verse play by Jacques Le Lorrain, makes a decent fist of condensing the sprawling narrative of the original into an evening's entertainment.

Dulcinée is a beautiful 20-year-old girl, living amongst a colourful carnival troupe. She has many male admirers who fling themselves at her feet with abandon. Aigul Akhmetshina plays her with a healthy dose of self-regard. Her dance and movement is as charming as her rich mezzo voice.

Don Quichotte, a wandering knight-errant, who goes about doing good in the community, falls under her spell. A poet and mandolin player, he impresses Dulcinée with his verbal sophistication, but he is much older than she. Dulcinée's necklace has been stolen by banditti and she dispatches Don Quichotte to retrieve it. He sets off on his quest with his sword, loyal sidekick Sancho by his side. All the hangers-on have a good laugh at his courtship of Dulcinée.

Goderdzi Janelidze as Don Quichotte brings surprising charm with his bass voice to the more messianic material - he gets to convert the bandit troupe. Playing Quichotte as elderly and shaky, Janelidze's interpretation implies oncoming confusion, rather than deluded idealism; this gives the opera a more poignant edge. It reminds the audience that Massenet was at this stage near the end of his own life. Olafur Sigurdarson as Sancho is complex, hitting the early comedy moments with great glee; but bringing profundity to the later emotional material.

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Conductor Timothy Myers tightly controls Massenet's emotionally prescriptive score, steering the audience adroitly from comedy to poignancy. Though Rodula Gaitanou's staging is rich, with an elaborate happy-making circus-style Act 1, the emotional through-line retains its simplicity. Set design by Takis makes clever use of windmills to create a bandits' den and an empty circus arena. Lighting designer Simon Corder gives us intense, dramatic skies.

Finally, the opera is a bromance between the two men who show each other true love and loyalty. Act 5 takes the energy in a sentimental direction. The ending is geared to tap into the audience's vulnerabilities regarding elderly dads or other relatives; but the emotional hit is more of a glancing blow than a deep thrust.

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