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S & H Opera Review

Massenet, Don Quichotte, January 21, 2001, Opéra-Bastille, Paris (FC)


Much press attention was given to recent appearances in New York, Milan and London of two ageing tenors and the inevitable questions about the state of their vocal chords and whether these are their last appearances. There is however, a certain star baritone, a contemporary of these two, who, without fuss or hype, continues to appear in major opera houses without any rumours of retirement or any sign of vocal distress. More than forty years after his début at the Opéra de Paris, he is back singing the title role in six performances of Jules Massenet's twilight masterpiece, Don Quichotte at the Opéra-Bastille.

When José Van Dam does retire there will certainly be many serious lovers of fine singing that will mourn the loss of his exceptional artistry and elegant voice on the world's stages. One of the last links to an almost lost grand tradition of French singing, his creamy baritone and faultless diction has no equal. His opening night portrayal of the besotted, love-struck old knight is a lesson in meaningful and detailed acting.

The other parts of the operatic stew were less successful. Van Dam was well matched with a poignant and beautifully sung Sancho Panza of Alain Vernhes. While not having the easy comic talent of Jean-Pierre Lafont of last year, his vocal talent was best shown in Act IV as he pleads for understanding for his abused master in the aria "Ca, vous commettez tous un acte épouvantable."

Even odder casting was Béatrice Uria-Monzon as Dulcinée. Possessing a powerful, steely mezzo she was unconvincing as a coquette and even less so when the music called for tenderness. The secondary roles were all appropriately sung and the choir, despite some tardy entrances, sang with vigour.

The orchestra sounded thin and wan under Stéphane Denèves baton and the melodic gifts of Massenet were not as much in evidence as they were last year under the regular conductor, James Conlon.

Back again is the colourful, carnival atmosphere of Gilbert Deflo's handsome production, first seen last season. Returning also from last season is the Spanish dance troupe Company Antonio Márquez who add further festive flavour to the evening with their flamenco-styled and impressive dancing.

Frank Cadenhead


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