Tro Santafé; van Dam, van Mechelen; Orchestre Symphonique et Choeurs de La Monnaie, Minkowski. Production: Pelly. Naïve 2147, 111 mins. (opera), 61 mins. (bonus), subtitled
Laurent Pelly’s production of Don Quichotte,unveiled in Brussels in May 2010,operates within three different, complementary conceptual frames. For one, there’sthe opera’s actual story — Don Quixote’s courtly pursuit of la belle Dulcinée, freely adapted from Cervantes by playwright Jacques Le Lorrain and librettist Henri Cain. Then there’s the story of Jules Massenet, nearing the end of a seven-decadelife and finding in his last great muse, Lucy Arbell, a parallel to the Don’s Dulcinée. Finally, there’s José van Dam, bidding a stoic but not unsentimental adieu to his home stage, La Monnaie (if not yet to his fifty-year opera career), by embodying both of these starry-eyed romantics, the fictional and the real. Pelly’s staging nimbly negotiates the metaphorical steps from one world to the next until, quickly and magically, the lines between them have blurred and all three men have melted into one.
Pelly opens his show with a well-dressed gentleman alone onstage in an armchair, floor lamp beside it, in an artfully wallpapered room with a simple door upstage and a small balcony stage left, a giant heap of papers ascending toward it. He’s clearly van Dam (sixty-nine years old at the time of this performance), but he’s not yet Don Quichotte. In fact, he’s the very image of the composer (sixty-seven in 1910, when the opera had its premiere), looking for inspiration, just like Cervantes’s very errant would-be knight, in grand old tales of romance and chivalry. As the story unfolds from the pages, van Dam/Massenet becomes Don Quichotte, sporting, from Act II on, the iconic beard and a suggestive bit of armor as he tilts at windmills and defies bandits. The paper proliferates in Barbara de Limburg’s handsomely stylized sets, whose overhead lanterns illuminating Dulcinée’s fête in Act IV provide an assertive splash of color amid the blacks and whites and grays. Nothing in Pelly’s staging seems forced, and everything moves exactly as it should. The same is true of Marc Minkowski’s work in the pit, with the excellent Monnaie orchestra; Massenet’s lovely score has just the right blend of fragrance and sparkle.
The cast, too, is first-rate, from the youthful quartet of suitors all the way up to the title role. It’s futile to pretend that we’re hearing the van Dam of eighteen years earlier, when he recorded the opera for EMI; the voice has dried and loosened and patently doesn’t belong to a singer in his prime. But even where it fails him, his instincts never do; he’s with the role through its every bar, masterfully shaping and shading it. And the dignified reserve that’s always marked his work serves him splendidly here, allowing just enough moisture to glisten in the knight’s nobly questing gaze.
He’s well matched with the Sancho of fellow Belgian bass-baritone Werner van Mechelen — no glamour voice here, but one whose plain, gruff efficiency goes hand in hand with his common-man manner and plastic, proletarian face. But there’s ample, apt glamour in the Dulcinée of Silvia Tro Santafé, whose dark, rangy, juicily vibrant mezzo is coupled with all the requisite seductive charm and even an apposite “period” physique. “Stay with us!” Dulcinée pleads, humbled by the Don’s devotion, in a magical moment in Act IV, and it’s easy to feel the audience’s complicity in her entreaty, directed not just at Massenet’s gallant fou sublime but at the beloved singer playing him.
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