Although there are many operas that celebrate youth, few are concerned with old age. Massenet’s Don Quichotte, based on Miguel de Cervantes’s novel, is an exception – the product of a 67-year-old composer, who uses the story of Don Quixote to explore an elderly man’s hopeless desires and unfulfilled dreams to the most delicate of musical accompaniments.
The opera was first performed in 1910 and provided a triumph for one of the great singers of the time, the Russian bass Chaliapin. When it is revived today, it is usually as a showpiece for a leading bass, but Grange Park Opera’s Clive Bayley finds himself caught up in a production that does not afford much opportunity for heroic grandstanding.
The director, Charles Edwards, has seized upon the opera’s autobiographical background and made Massenet himself the central figure. The composer sits at the piano in his long johns, fretting over how his music is seen as a relic of the past. A performance of his opera Don Quichotte is under way and, when the lead singer fails to turn up, Massenet himself takes up breastplate and spear and climbs on to the stage.
In some respects this is a perceptive slant – Massenet’s infatuation with his leading lady, Lucy Arbell, is well documented, and his yearnings for a lost world were real enough – but Edwards oversteps the mark. To have Massenet/Don Quixote tilting not at windmills, but at Stravinsky (whose modernist The Rite of Spring was to have its premiere four years later) is just silly. Too much is clumsily contrived and the opera fails to touch the heart.
In the impossibly downbeat character he has been asked to play, Bayley does his best. His strong bass voice is a proud instrument, but he keeps on dipping below the note in the role’s many soft, introspective passages. Sara Fulgoni makes an earthy Dulcinée and David Stout a Sancho Panza with mercifully clear words. The clarity of the French otherwise would be guaranteed to sink any Brussels summit.
Renato Balsadonna conducts a far from tidy BBC Concert Orchestra with some energy. The stage setting of Massenet’s salon, Edwards’s own design, is handsome. In the end, though, this production unwisely tilts at its own windmills and gets unseated in the process.