68th Wexford Festival Opera 22 October - 3 November 2019
Comédie-héroïque in five acts
Libretto by Henri Cain after Jacques Le Lorrain’s verse play Le chevalier de la longue figure (1904, after Miguel de Cervantes: Don Quixote)
Sung in French with English surtitles
First performance 19 February 1910, Opéra, Monte Carlo
Though Jules Massenet had a few more operas left in him, Don Quichotte feels in many ways like his operatic farewell. Premiered in Monte Carlo, it indeed proved to be his last great success – and two-and-a-half years later the composer died aged 70. One of the most successful of all French opera composers, Massenet’s career had spanned nearly half a century and all his experience of writing for the stage – and of life – is summed up in this near-masterpiece. He labelled it a comédie-héroïque, and as that unusual classification reflects how this opera is at once witty and sad, and above all deeply humane. Its view of Spain is hardly more authentic than that of Carmen; although drawn from Cervantes, it is transmitted via Jacques Le Lorrain’s play, just as Carmencomes from Merimée. But one of the many enjoyable strands in the score is the pastiche-Spanish music, including the extraordinary evocation of windmills.
The score also contains one of Massenet’s greatest self-generating melodies, heard in Don Quichotte’s Act 1 Serenade. The title role was written for the great Chaliapin, but it is very hard not to view the opera as autobiographical – making gentle fun of an elderly man with a fondness for feminine beauty. Massenet’s own feelings seem to have been poured into the work, which helps to explain the richly sentimental portrait of Cervantes’s semi-hero. Sancho Panza is also drawn in the tradition of comic opera, but it is the portrayal of Dulcinée that is perhaps most telling of all. A slightly cynical gold-digger, albeit it one with a heart, Dulcinée certainly represents the sort of femmes the composer was used to encountering in the cafés of Paris, but there was something more specifically autobiographical here too. The role was written for the young mezzo-soprano Lucy Arbell, who had been leading the infatuated Massenet (some 40 years older than she) in a bit of a dance. Arbell created several roles in late Massenet operas, and the part of Dulcinée, in particular, exemplifies the late-period entry of the mezzo-soprano voice into the composer’s creative consciousness.
Set & Costume Designer
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