It might be best to put away any memory of the notably dark and enduring 1964 Broadway musical “Man of La Mancha” before arriving at Lyric Opera to see its altogether enchanting, alternately heart-wrenching and comical “Don Quichotte,” the Jules Massenet opera now in a “new-to-Chicago” production originally created for San Diego Opera.
Though similarly inspired by the 17th century Miguel de Cervantes masterpiece “Don Quixote” (the hallmark novel of Spain’s Golden Age, as well as a foundational work of modern literature), Massenet’s 1910 work (with a notably poetic libretto by Henry Cain, after Jacques Le Lorrain’s stage adaptation) is a great deal more like “Cyrano de Bergerac,” the 1897 play by another French neo-Romantic, Edmond Rostand.
Yes, Massenet’s “comédie-héroïque” pits the beauty of the idealistic spirit against the brutality and vulgarity of pragmatists and realists. But above all it is about the nature of “l’amour” — whether between men and women, or between man and God, or simply the nature of fraternity (brotherly love) embodied in the ever-amusing yet profoundly poignant relationship between Quichotte, the aging, deluded, high-minded Spanish knight, and Sancho, his earthy young “squire,” who is deeply rooted in life’s more ordinary pleasures.
Leave it to the French. (Another recent example of their French twist on a classic could be detected in Charles Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet,” seen at the Lyric last season.) That said, Massenet’s score is exquisite, and is being exquisitely played by the Lyric orchestra, whose masterful conductor, Sir Andrew Davis, might well be the hardest working man in any opera house. And this ideally cast production features luminous performances by Ferruccio Furlanetto as Quichotte, Nicola Alaimo as Sancho, and Clementine Margaine as Quichotte’s idealized lady love, Dulcinee.
‘DON QUICHOTTE’ Highly recommended When: Through Dec. 7 Where: Lyric Opera of Chicago at Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Tickets: $49-$349 (adults); $20-$50 (children) Info: (312) 827-5600; www.lyricopera.org Run time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission
Gracefully directed by Matthew Ozawa (with sets by Ralph Funicello that at moments suggest Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”), “Don Quichotte” unfolds in five fast-moving acts, each prefaced by a revealing excerpt from Cervantes’ novel that is projected as the orchestra plays an interlude. At the very start, we see a small boy turning the pages of a massive volume and clearly imagining the story in his own mind before he becomes part of the crowd gathered in the picturesque square of a small town in Spain.
In this version of the story, the farm girl of the novel becomes the far more sophisticated Dulcinée (Margaine, the beautiful, honey-voiced French mezzo-soprano making her Lyric debut). A seemingly well-to-do and very independent-minded woman, she attracts the attention of every man in town (with a splendid blend of voices and personalities courtesy of Jonathan Johnson, Alec Johnson and, in pants roles, Diana Newman and Lindsay Metzger). But Dulcinee admits to being bored by their attention. And, no longer feeling quite as young as she once did, she yearns for a deeper kind of love.
Enter Don Quichotte (Furlanetto, the tall, slender Italian bass who captures his character’s gentle, deluded but fiercely determined spirit with such truthfulness and vocal warmth that you never doubt him for a moment). He rides into town on a tattered horse, accompanied by his “squire,” Sancho (Alaimo, the winningly hefty Italian baritone, making a formidable Lyric debut in a role that showcases both his comic and dramatic gifts). The elderly Quichotte is starved for love and a grand sense of chivalric heroism, while Sancho, who has arrived on a starved-looking donkey, complains of hunger.
Although Quichotte is the easy target of jokes and sarcasm from all in town, he serenades Dulcinee, and his words and music seem to stir her heart. But she also sets a challenge for him that Sancho comes to view as just another ruse of all womankind: Quichotte must retrieve the pearl necklace stolen from her by the bandit Tenebrun (Bradley Smoak). This proves to be a near fatal mission as Quichotte first battles the windmills he mistakes for giants, and then is captured by the bandits, beaten, tied Christ-like to a tree and threatened with death until, in an aria fervently rendered by Furlanetto, he somehow penetrates their hardened souls.
Although Quichotte returns to town triumphant, and proposes marriage to Dulcinee, she turns him down, explaining that she wishes to remain free. Yet clearly moved by this man, she explains that her honesty is a sign of her admiration and affection for him. Broken-hearted, Quichotte heads out on the road again with Sancho, where in a heart-wrenching final scene, he realizes he is dying, tells the mournful Sancho he deserves all his dreams, and hears Dulcinee’s distant voice carry him off to heaven.
One final note: This year marks the 400th anniversary of both Cervantes’ and Shakespeare’s death, and while the English-language playwright received most of the attention, this production is a lovely reminder of the Spanish writer’s grand vision.