Grange Park Opera
Bayley in Massenet’s Don Quichotte at Grange Park
© Robert Workman 2014
Massenet's Don Quichotte is not so frequently performed as either Manon or Werther, but when it is — and that is usually when there is a senior bass available who wants to exhibit how well his voice is holding up — it makes an impression with its emotional warmth, its charm and its sheer stagecraft. Don Quichotte is perhaps not a masterpiece, but it remains a good example of a well-made opera. Grange Park's production (seen June 19), with sets and direction by Charles Edwards and costumes by Gabrielle Dalton, featured the Mancunian bass Clive Bayley, now in his mid-fifties, whose voice continues to sound strong after a career of some thirty years.
On this occasion, however, Bayley seemed both vocally and dramatically more inhibited than usual — something that might be put down to the unnecessary complexities of the staging he was involved in. The program-book synopsis began with the ominous words, "An elderly composer prepares to present a public showing of his latest opera to his friends in his salon," heralding a staging that offered exactly that. We saw the composer Massenet (played by Bayley) watching and soon participating by singing the title role (sung by Bayley) in his own opera Don Quichotte in a small private theater — presumably located in his own home. Mezzo-soprano Sara Fulgoni represented both the character of Dulcinée and its creator, Lucy Arbell, the French mezzo-soprano for whom Massenet composed the role as well as four others in his late operas. (Don Quichotte opened at Monte Carlo Opera in February 1910, a couple of years before Massenet's death at the age of seventy.)
More strangely, another composer was also present onstage. Edwards's concept seems to have been based not only on the notion that Massenet, by 1910, was getting old while remaining susceptible to the feminine charms of Arbell but on the idea that he had a problem with the rise of Modernism. Be that as it may, the famous scene in which the elderly knight mistakenly tilts at a windmill saw the arrival onstage of an actor wearing a huge head that was clearly that of Igor Stravinsky. In case anyone in the audience missed the reference, another performer carried around a sizable score with the title Le Sacre du Printemps emblazoned on it in large letters; this was repeatedly waved in front of the public to reiterate the point. Equally responsible for the creation of The Rite, Serge Diaghilev also appeared in the show — as the bandit-chief Ténébrun (sung by baritone Jonathan Alley), from whose criminal crew the elderly knight succeeds in regaining his beloved Dulcinée's stolen necklace; here, they instead set fire (albeit somewhat ineffectually) to his piano.
It seems pedantic, perhaps, to point out that the notorious premiere of Stravinsky's ballet took place some nine months following Massenet's death in 1912 — by which time he was presumably indifferent to Modernism or any other recent stylistic trends. But apart from littering the stage with numerous guests at Massenet's house — all of whom, for all one knows, might have been intended to represent a specific identity — Edwards's two-for-one staging localized (if not trivialized) a story often regarded as universal and succeeded in making the main plot nigh-on incomprehensible.
Bayley nevertheless brought a degree of nobility and grandeur to his singing — if not so much as one might normally expect from this accomplished, versatile artist. Fulgoni offered vitality and personality in the Franco–Iberian fripperies of Dulcinée, while baritone David Stout made a keen, focused Sancho Panza, seconding his master's central performance enthusiastically and at every turn.
Best known as the Royal Opera's chorus director, Renato Balsadonna conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra in a performance that was efficient, though somewhat lacking in character.
Send feedback to OPERA NEWS.