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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"After much consideration, I've decided the time has come for a new era in my life. I'm setting aside my career as an opera and concert singer.
I wish to thank the countless people who inspired me, supported me and encouraged me to embark on a fantastic journey over the past 35 years. A million thanks to those who hired me. Most importantly, I want to thank everyone who ever bought a ticket.
I'm really enjoying my time on CBC Radio as host of Saturday Afternoon at the Opera and Backstage with Ben Heppner, and look forward to what the future has in store." - Ben Heppner
Ben has excelled in some of opera’s most challenging roles, drawing worldwide acclaim for his beautiful voice, intelligent musicianship and deeply-felt dramatic presence.
Audiences at the Canadian Opera Company’s recent productions of Tristan und Isolde (2012/2013 season) and Peter Grimes (2013/2014 season) would have witnessed this first-hand and were privileged to see Ben in two of his signature roles – Tristan and Peter Grimes – in what are now among his final stage performances.
Alexander Neef, General Director, Canadian Opera Company
“I’ve admired Ben Heppner for a very long time, well before I even began working in opera. In fact, Ben was one of the first opera stars I was exposed to when I was growing up in Germany. To have had the opportunity to not only know him personally but work with him professionally has been the realization of a childhood dream.
"It has been an unreal experience for me to go from seeing him perform in Vienna in 2000 as Der Kaiser in Robert Carsen’s production of Die Frau ohne Schatten, to crossing paths with him while working at the Paris Opera a few years later on Lohengrin and Tristan und Isolde, to ultimately evolve into being in a position to bring him back to the Canadian Opera Company’s mainstage.
"Ben is one of opera’s finest artists, and it has been my greatest pleasure to follow his career. It is the honour of the Canadian Opera Company to have not only brought him to our stage as Tristan, in a very special production of Tristan und Isolde, but also to have hosted his last stage performance with our Peter Grimes this past fall.
"We hope that we can work with him again, in whatever capacity he chooses.”
Johannes Debus, Music Director, Canadian Opera Company; conductor of Tristan und Isolde and Peter Grimes
“When Ben sings, I carefully listen. When he appears on stage, I watch attentively. I’m spellbound and fascinated (and I even forget that I might be conducting at the same time). I’m captivated by the power of his truthful expression and overwhelmed by the naturalness and convincing “logic” of his music-making. Ben’s singing is always meaningful and relevant, it always makes sense and it’s never a hollow “end in itself.”
"And – God bless him – what a mind-boggling, glorious, unique voice he has! What an embracing, lush presence, what radiance, what a rich palette of colours and nuances his voice offers!"
"His Tristan performances at the COC belong to the most powerful, touching and incredible things I have ever experienced in my life at the opera. It was far beyond the norm, how Ben retraced the fever curve over the three acts with ceaseless energy and an enormous, youthful vocal vitality. Where others have to fight to “survive” that killer role, Ben, in his extraordinary way, added new dimensions of expressivity. He delivered an unsparing and utterly human insight into Tristan’s soul and all its madness."
"With Peter Grimes, Ben delivered another ingenious example of his artistry and artistic integrity. His identification with the role and his multi-faceted portrayal of the outsider Grimes were absolutely magnetic and mesmerizing. Grimes, the unsung hero; Grimes, the troubled outsider; Grimes, the optimistic dreamer; Grimes, the man of nature; Grimes, the fragile, broken being – all facets of this role Ben vocally and theatrically brought to life. His rendition of the mad scene at the end of the piece belongs, for me, to the most beautiful, heartbreaking and unforgettable moments of operatic theatre."
"Working with Ben was one of the most memorable and fulfilling experiences of my life. There are many great artists working in this field, but only a few might share with Ben the rare combination of a unique voice, a humble, honest, humorous, cordial down-to-earth personality, and the capacity to powerfully express and deeply move.”
Look back at Ben’s past performances with the COC, starting with when he first took to the COC stage in the early 1980s as a member of the company’s young artist training program, the Ensemble Studio.
Heppner on Peter Grimes
For more information on Ben Heppner, visit his website at www.benheppner.com.
You can also follow him on Twitter @benheppner or tune in to CBC Radio where you can hear him as the host of Saturday Afternoon at the Opera and Backstage with Ben Heppner.
Melanie Diener as Isolde and Ben Heppner as Tristan Tristan und Isolde (COC, 2013). Photo: Michael Cooper; Ben Heppner in the title role in Peter Grimes (COC, 2013). Photo: Michael Cooper; Ben Heppner as Tristan in Tristan und Isolde (COC, 2013). Photo: Michael Cooper; Ben Heppner with Joanne Kolomyjec in the Ensemble Studio’s Summer Festival production of La Bohème (1984). Photo: Gary Beechey; Ben Heppner as Canio in Pagliacci (COC, 1996). Photo: Michael Cooper; Ben Heppner in the title role in Peter Grimes (COC, 2013). Photo: Michael Cooper.
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001