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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Don Quichotte - opera in five acts (1909)
José van Dam (bass) - Don Quichotte
Silvia tro Santafé (mezzo) - La Belle Dulcinée
Werner van Mechelen (bass-baritone) - Sancho Panza
Orchestre et Choeurs de La Monnaie/Marc Minkowski
Laurent Pelly (stage director)
rec. live, La Monnaie, May 2010
Region Code 0; Aspect Ratio 16:9; Dolby 2.0 Stereo
NAÏVE DR2147 [112:00 (opera) + 61:00 (bonus)]

Anything that serves to draw more attention to Massenet’s wonderful valedictory opera is a good thing in my eyes. It’s high time this opera got more of the credit that it deserves. Its endless stream of lovely melodies makes it a real winner, with frequent splashes of Spanish colour serving to enrich the texture. It’s surely worthy of standing alongside Manon and Werther in the popularity stakes.
 
This issue deserves particular praise because the central performance, on which so much of the opera hangs, was José van Dam’s farewell to the stage at La Monnaie. The great Belgian bass could not have chosen a better opera with which to bow out. The bittersweet character of so much of the music suits the event down to the ground, especially the moist-eyed final scene of the Don’s death. That said, there’s enough humour and levity in the other scenes to ensure the occasion doesn’t become too lachrymose. Van Dam is on very fine form here, clearly relishing the importance of the occasion. His gift for vocal flair is still there, even if the lower part of his register is nowhere near as full as it was. He is at his finest in the third act’s scene with the bandits where, in his prayer scene, he rediscovers all the beauty that made his voice so special in its heyday. The duet with Dulcinée in the fourth act is also extremely moving, but he saves the best for the final scene where his portrayal is touching in its simplicity. He barely moves a muscle in the whole scene, allowing the music and, especially, the voice to do the acting. The moment when he bequeaths to Sancho the Island of Dreams is lovely. Leaving aside Furlanetto’s recent assumption of the role on the Mariinsky label, the main point of comparison for this release will be Van Dam’s EMI Classics set from 1992. Eighteen years separate these recordings, so it’s not surprising that Van Dam was in finer voice back then. The bottom of the register, in particular, sounds much stronger in 1992, though the world-weariness had increased by 2010, thereby making this interpretation more poignant.
 
Silvia tro Santafé is a very successful Dulcinée, though, and runs EMI’s Teresa Berganza very close. Her voice is a little opaque but still luxuriant - the same quality I detect in the more famous tones of Anna Netrebko. That makes her very successful in this role, however. She is very winning in the first scene when she sets the Don his task of recovering her necklace, as she is in the final scene of the fourth act where she attempts some sort of reconciliation with the Don after rejecting his marriage proposal. She is still full of skittishness and coquetry, giving her an appropriately unsympathetic edge in the fiesta scene. The one place where the 1992 recording scores easily over this DVD is in Werner van Mechelen’s Sancho Panza. His voice isn’t gruff, exactly, but he lacks lyrical tone and he spills over into parlando style much too easily, most damagingly in his second act condemnation of the wiles of women. This should sound much more lyrical than it does. Alain Fondary is much finer for Plasson. However, Minkowski’s quartet of suitors makes a good contrast to the more substantial central roles, and the singing of the chorus is very good.
 
Pelly’s production flows from the books of chivalry which, in Cervantes’ novel, addle Don Quixote’s brain and turn him to his misguided feats of knight errantry. Every scene is either dominated by or involves mounds of books and leaves of paper, reinforcing the idea that this is a fantasy, though in the final scene, when the Don finally understands his folly, the books have been torched. When we first see the Don he is sitting in his armchair reading a book. He observes all the action on stage but does not take part until his name is called, suggesting that the whole opera is, in fact, taking place within a dream. It is interesting and appealing, though, to see his character visibly age as the opera progresses. There are a few strikingly bonkers moments that we’ve come to expect from Pelly, such as the guitar-playing horse in the fourth act, and the altercation with the windmills is very well done. I was a little concerned that Pelly was approaching the whole work as if to take the mickey out of it - looking at it in inverted commas, if you like. I guess that’s what Massenet’s treatment of the story is all about anyway, so in the end it didn’t bother me. The gaudy colours and undoubtedly impressive sets place the whole thing in a story-book world that seems to characterise many of Pelly’s opera productions: see his Covent Garden Cendrillon and Fille du Régiment for further amiable examples. In the end I found it mostly very winning.
 
In the pit Minkowski holds the whole evening together with charm, affection and his famous ear for detail, enlivening each phrase with a spark of delight. The packaging of the disc is pretty lavish, with a full colour booklet and cardboard case, though the sideways orientation of the spine means it won’t sit comfortably on your shelf. It’s a shame, though, that the only sound available is 2-channel stereo; a surround option would have been nice.
 
The bonus film runs to a very generous 61 minutes, giving you not just interviews with Van Dam, Pelly and the creative team, but also myriad insights into the backstage process, including building the very impressive sets and the audition process for finding the quartet of suitors.
 
Simon Thompson
 

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