Saturday, May 10, 2014

Review: (Toronto / Opera) Don Quichotte

Just My Imagination
by Shannon Christy

Every country has its myths.  The United States believes they are a beacon for freedom and democracy. Canada believes that it is a nice country. The French believe that people are inherently rational. Hence it is of little surprise that after having survived a crushing defeat to Prussia because of the irrational aspirations of Napoleon III, the brilliant French opera composer Jules Massenet turned Don Quichotte into an opera. Both he and Miguel Cervantes had seen their ideals bashed against reality and both looked to the errant knight and his island of dreams as a refuge and an excuse to continue. The Seattle production of Don Quichotte presented by the COC provides the music, stunning performers, and a reproduction of the original but it fails to provide the imagination to connect our flawed world to the flawed world of a France eclipsed by the pragmatic Prussians of the 19th century or a Spain of the 16th century lost to the Inquisition and awash in gold and corruption.  That is unfortunate because if there ever was a time when the island of dreams would be a pleasant respite from a cold reality that time is now.

The music and the performers set this show apart and it must be said that the audience adored both.  Conductor Johannes Debus does an excellent job at providing the tempo and guiding us through 16th century Spain. The violin solo at the beginning of Act IV floats on the air and is such a pleasant and subtle departure from the initial bombastic opening scene of the small Spanish village in Act I. Yet Mr. Debus carries us through both successfully allowing the music to set the scene for one of the most amazing contemporary bass voices of our time, Ferruccio Furlanetto, as Don Quichotte. 

Despite the fact that Mr. Furlanetto has a strange French accent at times, accent coaches Rosemarie Landry and Jason Nedecky still have some work left on their plate, his vocal talents are amazing and the description provided in his bio regarding his vast range and thundering vocal power is spot on.  While listening to his voice you do believe that miracles can happen, that a benevolent God does exist, and that true beauty is all around us. His acting performance is no less and one is led to glimpse at the Dragon in lieu of windmills, that castle on the Guadalquivir, or the island of dreams.  

His inspiration and counter point is Dulcinée. The sensual mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, certainly can boast of an incredible range as well. Her introduction in Act I and her lament for the tedium of life in Act IV are sweet and provocative evidence of her talent. Her acting talent matches her voice and in front of us, we actually see the unfaithful, yet melancholic aspiring dreamer who could not commit to an idealist who deserved better.

In this vein Quinn Kelsey stands out as the less than faithful squire to Don Quichotte, Sancho Panza.  Sancho realizes that Don Quichotte is a fool but he is his fool and along with his foolish antics, attacking windmills, he bears witness to the miracle of Don Quichotte’s idealism. Mr. Kelsey is an accomplished artist and you feel his sympathy for his master, his desire to protect him from the barbs and ridicule, and his despair at the loss of such a noble spirit. 

All the above are good enough reasons to see this show. That cannot be said for the set. The show starts off promising enough with an Alice in Wonderland feel of Spaniards dancing in the middle of enormous books and quills but it ends there. From there we are covered in realism and the most boring conventionalism. Real Spanish costume remakes from the 17th century, real horses, and a mustached Don Quichotte former high school students would recognize a mile away. 

Donald Eastman’s set for Don Quichotte, and Christina Poddubiuk’s costumes, leave the impression of a very real lack of imagination.  So much so that one’s own imagination is fired up just thinking of the unexploited possibilities at hand.

Why not have Don Quichotte as some idealist Hippy priest that believes in liberation theology and looks to create a Shangri La in Mexico, surrounded by Federalias, Zetas, Narcos, and corrupt officials who behead the children of their foes as examples of their ferocity and yet are smitten by this idealist?

What if in a dark twisted reading of the piece, Don Quichotte was in fact high on whatever and weed, not idealism, was in fact the fabric of our hero’s dreams?

No. Instead we get an exact reproduction complete with nonsensical connections such as a windmill with sails that turn into a feather, which is a quill. We understand that Don Quichotte has lost his mind to his books and that the books of the 17th century were written with quills but this does not mean that the giants that Don Quichotte are facing are feathered in his mind or that the windmills turn into giant birds. 

And exactly what did Christina Poddubiuk do for the costumes? Did she go Wikipedia and look up clothes of Spain during the height of the Spanish Empire? 

Still if you are looking for some astonishing musical scores and some great performances this is a show that should not be missed. If, however, you are looking for the reason that Spanish is often referred to as the language of Cervantes and a little respite from a world besotted with materialism, narcissism, and greed, in an island of dreams then I suggest you grab the book Don Quichotte and read it.  

May 9 - 24

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