By Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager
The two major names in French 19th-century opera were Giacomo Meyerbeer and Jules Massenet. Although Charles Gounod and Camille Saint-Saens made wider contributions to French music as a whole during this period (symphonies, chamber music, sacred choral works, etc.), their theatrical output was relatively small compared to the huge number of operatic successes Meyerbeer and Massenet had throughout their long careers. However, despite the popularity of these works during their lifetimes, they suffered a subsequent neglect which, in Massenet’s case, was especially true of his later operas including Don Quichotte (1910). However, changing tastes and reconsidered opinions have resulted in a new-found appreciation and popularity for Massenet’s treatment of Miguel de Cervantes’ epic 1605 novel Don Quixote. Its exploration of universal themes of age versus youth; fulfillment versus regret, and self-deception versus reality, lend it an eternal relevance and appeal.
Musically, Don Quichotte shows Massenet composing in his more chamber music-like mode.* Although he could write operas requiring huge orchestral and choral forces such as 1889’s Esclarmonde with its Wagnerian, Tristan und Isolde-inspired story, he was able to downsize all of this in the interest of telling Don Quichotte’s more intimate, personal story. Much of its score is lightly orchestrated, accompanied by solo instruments such as the guitar; or, by solo instrumental sections (for example, cellos dominate Don Quichotte’s final death scene). This opera was intimate on all fronts, composed as it was for the opulent little theatre in the casino at Monte Carlo. Likewise, its libretto written by Henri Caïn, is a compact five-act distillation of the sprawling Cervantes novel.
The opera’s overall dark tinta (dominant musical colour) reflects its examination of sombre themes such as the passage of time and lost illusion. It also results from the dominance of deep male voices – both Don Quichotte and his right hand man, Sancho Panza, are sung by basses. Massenet lightens the overall texture in the larger ensembles by making two of Dulcineé’s four suitors into pants roles. However, the overall chamber music scale is maintained even in episodes with the potential for some adventure such Don Quichotte’s Act III encounter with threatening brigands in the Spanish mountains. Here, Massenet never lets things get too overwhelming, keeping the orchestral colours spare and transparent.
Musical Excerpt #1: Act II, duet: “Regarde!... Quoi? Quoi?” (“See there!... What? What?”)
Connection to the Story
As the morning mist clears, Quichotte sees windmills, takes them for giants, and despite Sancho’s attempts to disabuse him, he attacks them and is borne up aloft on one of the sails.
The question of textual fidelity, or lack thereof, is one of the oft-repeated complaints made against French Romantic operas like Don Quichotte or, for example, Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet (1868); but it’s an objection that demonstrates some general confusion around opera libretti (texts) based on well-known works from the literary canon. It must be kept in mind that these operas were very much adaptations of the original pieces of literature, which is even more the case for Don Quichotte, based as it is not so much on Cervantes’ novel but on an adaptation of it, the 1904 play, Le chevalier de la longue figure by Jacques Le Lorrain. However, even Massenet couldn’t resist setting the famous “tilting at windmills” scene from Cervantes’ episodic tale. Many of the atmospheric or emotional effects achieved by Massenet in Don Quichotte are the result of his highly individual, vivid orchestration rather than any flashy vocal writing. For example, listen to the pale, spare chords that introduce the windmills as they appear through the mist at the start of this excerpt (listen from 00:07 to 00:17) – very subtle, a bit spooky, and obviously a product of Don Quichotte’s over-fertile imagination! Then, at 1:23, we hear a percussive “clip-clop” sound which mimics the acceleration of the windmills as he swings wildly at them with his sword, much to the disbelief of Sancho.
Musical Excerpt #2: Act IV, aria: “Alza! Alza! Ne pensons qu’au plaisir d’aimer” (“Alza! Alza! Think only of the pleasures of love”)
Connection to Story
Dulcinée informs her suitors that she is looking for a new kind of love and, to her own guitar accompaniment, sings a passionate song in praise of fleeting pleasure.
Dulcinée ranks among the most attractive of Massenet’s feminine portraits. His heroines can be roughly divided into two camps: the quintessential femme fatale/courtesan type (Manon and Thaïs) versus his more mettlesome, determined females such as Chimène of Le Cid; the German housewife Charlotte in Werther; the faithful, patient Grisélidis in the opera of that name and, the frantic Anita in La Navarraise. Dulcinée lies somewhere between these two extremes: her social position is not quite clear – she emerges as a strong woman who knows what she wants and keeps her many suitors at bay. In Cervantes’ novel, “Dulcinea” is just a figment of the Don’s imagination and remains invisible. Massenet goes the route of Jacques Le Lorrain’s play on which the libretto is based and turns her into a flesh-and-blood character.
The role requires a fruity, agile mezzo-soprano (a “middle” female singing voice that falls between a soprano and contralto), which is able to handle high-lying passages. She gets to sing music written in a “faux Spanish” style with its characteristically playful, incisive rhythms and clicking castanet sound effects, all of which suit Dulcinée’s carefree, flighty personality. This excerpt contains many elements we associate with Spanish folk music: listen for guitar strumming at 00:11; a rousing “Olé” at 00:35; intricate twirling coloratura passages at 00:49 and finally, signature clapping and castanet clicking to end at 1:51.
Musical Excerpt #3: Act IV, duet: “Oui, je souffre votre tristesse” (“Yes, I share your sorrow”)
Connection to the Story
With exaggerated courtliness, Don Quichotte proposes marriage to Dulcinée much to the amusement of her guests. She tactfully dismisses them and, in a tender duet, gently refuses his offer.
This gorgeously harmonized duet seems to encapsulate Claude Debussy’s opinion that in Massenet’s “untiring curiosity in seeking in music the data for the history of the feminine soul… The harmonies are like enlacing arms, the melodies are the necks we kiss; we gaze into the women’s eyes to learn at any cost what lies behind.” Like Debussy suggests, Dulcinée’s vocal line acts as a mirror to her soul. At 0:17, we hear a gentle, falling melody as she expresses feelings of empathy for Don Quichotte, who she gently lets down after a somewhat inappropriate marriage proposal. Then at 0:42, the tempo picks up and the melody rises and intensifies as she sings of her chagrin (embarrassment) for having mocked his proposal. Finally, at 3:54 the two voices join together in harmony as if to signify their mutual understanding of one other. Although nominally a “love duet,” Massenet here maintains the same understated vocal writing he uses throughout the opera and in doing so, charts a painfully honest conversation between two mature adults.
Musical Excerpt #4: Act V, aria: “Ô mon maître, ô mon grand!” (“O my master, o my great!”)
Connection to the Story
Quichotte realizes that he has long outlived his purpose in life and that death is near: Sancho will be free to return to the village he forsook to serve so strange a master.
The opera fittingly concludes with this moving death scene not only signifying the end of Don Quichotte, but also the end of the Age of Chivalry that he represents. Even further, the finale points to the conclusion of a golden age of French Romantic opera for which Massenet served as the last great proponent.
The scene begins with an orchestral introduction dominated by low strings (listen for the cello entry at 0:17) which establishes an appropriately autumnal, sombre atmosphere. We don’t hear any singing until 1:38 when Don Quichotte begins his farewell to his lifelong companion, Sancho Panza. Here, in typically French style, the vocal line is intrinsically tied to the text, rising and falling with the cadence of the sentence as it would be spoken with any additional inflection related to the meaning of the words. This remarkably subtle word-setting represents the culmination of a lifetime of experience on Massenet’s part; a sort of high point of the very text-centred French operatic tradition that would only be taken one step further by Debussy in Pelléas et Mélisande. At 3:15, Quichotte’s recitation takes on the monastic, chanted quality we normally associate with medieval church music. We hear this as his vocal line becomes centred around one pitch and any expression results directly from the handling of the text. Finally, at 8:33 in his final moments, Don Quichotte has a vision of Dulcinée whose voice is heard offstage and is hailed as “la lumière, l’amour, la jeunesse” (the light, the love, the youth) of his life.
Don Quichotte runs from May 9 to 25 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, for tickets and more information click here.
Photo: John Relyea as Don Quichotte in the Seattle Opera production of Don Quichotte, 2011. Photo: Rozarii Lynch
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001