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SD Opera to end 49-year run with ‘Don Quixote’

The final opera of the 2014 season and the final performance of Opera San Diego will be Massenet’s “Don Quixote.”

The opera’s board of directors voted Wednesday to cease operations of the 49-year-old company because of financial shortfalls.

The popular production of 2009, however, returns with the great basso Ferruccio Furlanetto repeating the title role.

The character of the man from La Mancha was described in a review of the New York premiere in 1914 as real pathos by portraying a grotesque old man who exudes fanaticism, blind impulsiveness, true chivalry and kindness as he wanders the countryside with his sidekick Sancho Panza.

The title role of “Don Quixote” is traditionally pursued by the great bassos of every generation since the opera made its debut in 1910. What singing actor in that voice range would pass up the opportunity to interpret his vision of the eccentric old knight, a role created by the greatest, Feodor Chaliapin, at the world premiere in Monte Carlo.

Furlanetto fits the role of a self-imposed noble knight in appearance, voice and character, like a reincarnation of the Spanish literary icon created by Miguel de Cervantes in his admired novel of 1615. It is the dominant role of the opera that also casts a bass as Sancho, the knight’s ever-loyal companion, and a mezzo soprano as Dulcinea, the damsel he champions for his misadventures. Dulcinea is sung by German soprano Anke Vondung and Eduardo Chama returns to repeat his role as Sancho. Karen Keltner, resident conductor, will lead the orchestra.

With the three principals in the lower register, the vocal score is rich in color to match the Spanish flamenco spirit mirrored in the orchestra. Composer Jules Massenet (1842-1912) followed the tradition of his French opera colleagues in adapting Spanish music as a core for this composition. Bizet’s “Carmen” and works by Ravel come to mind.

Don Quixote is a masculine crusader, but he exudes concern for women in distress, or at least perceived to be in danger. He sees Dulcinea as a fine lady who needs his protection, despite the foul treatment he receives in return. The plot fits the season theme of unrequited love.

The opera libretto is loosely based on the Cervantes novel, but follows the story of a 1904 play that was first performed in Paris. Don Quixote is acting out his fantasies as a knight of medieval days. He is actually a country squire named Alonzo Quijano, who is losing his reason in a dream of chivalry. He wanders off with his manservant Sancho to right the wrongs of the world.

The 1965 Broadway musical “Man of La Mancha” made a better case to explain this fantasy drama. It also provided some memorable tunes to portray the Don’s mission and personality, such as “The Impossible Dream” and “Man of La Mancha.”

During the mid-20th century, music critics and educators questioned why “Don Quixote” had suffered neglect periodically in the opera world after its popularity in the first two decades of the century. Later revivals were staged periodically in Europe and by a few U.S. regional companies, including SDO in 1969 for the 200th anniversary of the founding of San Diego by Spanish missionaries.

Early opera critics compared Massenet’s later life to the story of the Don. The composer was in failing health while he worked on the opera (he died two years after the premiere). He was having a fantasy love affair with the artist who created the role of Dulcinea, Lucy Arbell, about 40 years his junior, and a popular artist of her day. Massenet wrote six other operas late in his career specifically for her.

Although Massenet’s “Manon” and “Werther” are popular today, “Don Quixote” never reached that level of audience popularity. Music writers tried to justify the merits of Massenet’s last major work to counter the brutal review of the Metropolitan Opera revival in 1926.

The “Grove Dictionary of Opera” rather candidly, but unfairly, defined Massenet as a first-class, second-class composer. In a survey of Massenet’s compositions, “Opera News” was kinder by stating that “Don Quixote” is the fusion of text, musical expression, action and stage setting, using concise deft strokes to form a remarkably brief work.

The classic story of the idealistic old knight Don Quixote and his faithful companion Sancho Panza searching the countryside for good in mankind will continue to be an inspiration for dreamers. The romantic music created by Massenet and the popular Broadway musical keep that impossible dream alive for audiences today. San Diego Opera is proud to have revived the opera 45 years ago and perform it again.

“Don Quixote” is sung in French with English text projected over the stage. Performances at the Civic Theatre are: 7 p.m. April 5, April 8 and April 11; and 2 p.m. April 13. For ticket information, call 619-533-7000 or visit www.sdopera.com.

Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University.

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