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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 4, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 09
Brilliant young conductor steals the show
Arts & Entertainment
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Brilliant young conductor steals the show

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Massenet's Don Quichotte
February 26-27
McCaw Hall


Since even those of us who travel to see opera are not likely to have ever seen Massenet's Don Quichotte, let me say at the outset that the music and orchestration are brilliant. The libretto is less exciting, but certainly better than many a more famous opera (say, for instance, Il Trovatore). So, taken as a whole, this opera well deserves more frequent appearances on the stage.

Part of the genius of this music is that it sounds absolutely nothing like Massenet's Manon or his Werther or even his Thais. That none of these works sounds anything like any of the others makes my estimation of Massenet climb into the first rank of opera composers. Don Quichotte begins with loud, wild Spanish dance music, and Dulcinée's entrance is a coloratura flourish in a Spanish vein. And the beginning of Act II (Act IV in the original form) sounds almost like Shostakovich, even though it debuted in 1910! Indeed, to listen all evening just to what's going on in the orchestra is to be constantly impressed by Massenet's invention.

Among the many virtues of this new production by Seattle Opera, none comes close to the brilliance of the conducting of Carlo Montanaro, making his Seattle debut. (Fortunately, we will see him again next season in January, along with bass-baritone John Relyea, in Verdi's Attila.) Technically as well as musically, this maestro could not have impressed me more. The coordination between the pit and the stage was perfect at all times, the orchestra never swamped the singers, and the detail, balance, and vitality in the orchestra was simply amazing. This ultra-imaginative score received unsurpassed articulation and phrasing. I have never seen clearer cues, nor better communication with the singers.

I very much liked the simple sets: gigantic, well-worn books that framed the action and often supported the singers and dancers at different levels, removing the need for visible stairs (except for one small staircase in Scene One). These books, of course, symbolized the condition of Don Quixote's mind, completely taken over by the romances he has read to excess, thus replacing reality with something finer. Giant inkwells and feather pens added to the effect. Costumes by Missy West (Seattle Opera debut) brought appropriate color and character to the milieu. And the Spanish-flavored choreography by Sara de Luis (who also danced) flavored the scene nicely. She was partnered by the convincing Raúl Salcedo.

An excellent, strong quartet of suitors (two tenors and two sopranos in pants) set at the outset a high standard of singing for the evening. I especially liked the free-flowing voice of tenor Marcus Shelton in his debut. This opening scene also involves highly complex work by the chorus, which the Seattle Opera Chorus performed with startling precision and power, in perfect coordination with Maestro Montanaro's gestures in the pit. (Indeed, it was hard NOT to watch this attractive and energetic conductor!)

As Dulcinée, Polish mezzo Malgorzata Walewska displayed a huge, very interesting voice with a nonetheless terrible coloratura, so ugly in fact that it made me feel she was miscast in this role. Big voices often take a while to warm up, and by the second half, Walewska sounded better, especially when singing less loud. Daniela Sindram, in the matinee/Friday cast, was far better suited to the part, singing with great beauty and ease in all ranges. Both mezzo's acted well and looked well on stage.

Bass-baritone John Relyea, a familiar figure at Seattle Opera, had overcome his cold and sang with resplendent voice on opening night, even if his diction was less than clear. Frenchman Nicolas Cavallier was perhaps naturally easier to understand. His excellent singing matched Relyea's with a voice only slightly less ample. Both were convincing actors. Don Quichotte's sidekick Sancho Panza had two equally effective singers, Eduardo Chama and Richard Bernstein, although Chama seemed a bit shy of the pitch at times. It was gratifying to see Bernstein, who impressed us as Figaro 14 years ago, still looking and sounding fresh and lively. He is quite active at the Metropolitan Opera these days, with five different roles there.

This production, ably directed by Linda Brovsky, included a horse and a big-eared donkey. In curtain calls, the Don even repeated his entrance on his beloved Rocinante. The beasts were well behaved, although Rocinante's loud hoofs added comic effect behind the curtain during one of the scene changes.

It was indeed a fun show. The second half was more effective, but glorious, evocative musical genius informed the whole evening.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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