This Saturday: Don Quixote and Jules Massenet

Jules Massenet (1843-1912) liked music, loved women(Photo: Bettmam)

If, like me, you love Man of La Mancha, you may be surprised to know that Mitch Leigh was only one of many composers who turned to Cervantes’s doleful knight for inspiration. Gluck composed a ballet to Don Quixote, and there are several operas you’ll never hear again. There is one opera, however that surfaces regularly, Don Quichotte by Jules Massenet.

Join me for Don Quichotte Saturday on Stage August 11 at 1:30 p.m. on Classical 101. Nicolai Ghiaurov sings the title role, with Regine Crespin and Gabiel Bacquier. This will be a Massenet Festival, for the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death. We’ll also hear scenes from other Massenet operas, with Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, Maria Callas and Nicolai Gedda.

Did you ever ride a windmill?

I did. Thirty-five years ago in my younger and skinnier (all things relative)  days. Sarah Caldwell was producing Don Quichotte for the Opera Company of Boston. She had a great cast: Donald Gramm as Sancho, bosomy Mignon Dunn as Dulcinee, and a 6’8″ bass named Noel Tyl for the title role. The windmill, a real one, onstage needed to be tested and I was one of a few choristers who took a ride. One guy threw up. Not me.

Don Quichotte, was first performed at Monte-Carlo in 1910, two years before the composer’s death. The great Russian singing actor Fyodor Chaliapin took the title role, one of many that became identified with him. Productions followed in Paris, Milan and Chicago. Massenet died in 1912, and our upcoming broadcast observes the centennial of his death.

Jules Massenet was sort of the Andrew Lloyd Weber of 19th century France. His successful operas, Manon, Thais, Werther,and Le jongleur de Notre-dame were international hits by 1900. The first two were written for a glamorous soprano, Sybil Sanderson, from Bakersfield, California. Drugs and booze killed her at 37 years-old. Scots-American Mary Garden was so successful in these operas that Massenet re-wrote Jongleur for her – the young juggler went from tenor to soprano. In the 1970s his Wagnerian pageant Esclarmonde, long forgotten, as revived for Joan Sutherland.

Don Quichotte has our hero declaring his love for Dulcinee, who laughs at him. If you love me, go find the necklace that was stolen from me. Thus goes the knight on his travels. He’s beaten up by bandits who later ask for his blessing. Dulcinee is deeply moved and changed a bit. The Don dies in Sancho’s arms.  Sad and colorful is this small episode from Cervantes.

In recent years Samuel Ramey has owned this role. Denyce Graves has made herself an alluring Dulcinee. Nobody pretends this is great music, but it is marvelous theater.

And Chaliapin? He starred in the Metropolitan Opera premiere in 1926. New York Times critic Lawrence Gilman hated the opera:  “It has no continuity of pattern, no tension, no substance. It is operatic sawdust of the most unnourishing kind.”  Gilman went on to report that Chaliapin and company were cheered and the performances sold out.

Phooey. Critics don’t pay to get in.  Don Quichotte is a lovely story and a bloody good sing.

(Jacques Ibert’s music-but there’s Chaliapin)