Tradition for simplicity’s sake

Tradition for simplicity’s sake

The Mariinsky Theater’s new production of Massenet’s ‘Don Quichotte’ cleverly steers clear of innovation.

Published: January 16, 2013 (Issue # 1742)


Notable for its back-to-basics approach and retro elements, the opera’s action takes place around a giant folio.

As popular wisdom in the opera world has it, many directors put on their best work when they follow the composer’s intentions, without turning the ideas inside out for the sake of experiment. The exceptions, some directors themselves often admit, only prove the rule.

French director Yannis Kokkos, whose production of Jules Massenet’s “Don Quichotte” (Don Quixote) premiered at the Mariinsky Theater on Dec. 28 and 29, has avoided an innovative conceptual staging and this production has created a masterful backdrop for the Mariinsky’s opera singers. Harmony, simplicity and rapport are key to the show’s success.

“Don Quichotte,” Massenet’s comédie héroïque, has received delicate and tactful treatment from Kokkos, whose visual spectacular revolves around an ancient folio that graces the center of the stage, symbolizing the source of the story of the clash between fantasy and reality, the sadness of unrequited love and the comic side of heroism.

For the first two premiere performances, the Mariinsky recruited the renowned Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto to appear in the lead role. Furlanetto delivered a sumptuous performance, making the most of his stage presence and charisma. With a round tone and fine phrasing, the Italian offered an iconic treatment of the ill-fated romantic knight.

This opera, originally written for the legendary Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin and premiered in 1920 at the Opera de Monte Carlo, throws down a vocal challenge to singers and demands a mighty stage presence. Without a particular singer in mind to fit the lead role, it would be suicidal for a company to embark on a production like this. In the absence of an obvious Don Quixote, the Mariinsky solved the problem by inviting Furlanetto, thus finally accepting the international practice of inviting heavyweight guest stars to cast in premieres, without relying solely on homegrown talent.

The director has infused the show with subtle retro elements, from elements of shadow theater, with silhouettes of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza slowly crossing the back of the stage, to the use of some primitive stage machinery, such as the knight’s life-size metal horse. The enormous folio that stands, wide open, on the stage, also serves as the knight’s deathbed in the opera’s finale.

For Kokkos it was important to visually emphasize the contrast between the bourgeois crowd that ridicules and rejects Don Quixote and the knight himself. It is the confrontation of values, and the opposition of idealism and the materialism on which the director centers his production.


Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto (r) as the dying Don Quixote.

Andrei Serov is a solid choice as Don Quixote’s squire Sancho Panza. Technically adroit and liberated, he provides the much-needed comic relief for this opera-bouffe.

Mezzo-soprano Anna Kiknadze is less convincing as the knight’s beloved, Dulcinée, who vocally appears somewhat shaky, yet who is dramatically very much in tune with Massenet’s image of Dulcinée, a coquettish and light-hearted creature, a somewhat understated attempt at Carmen, whose lack of sensitivity causes Don Quixote much heartache. Dramatically, the contrast between the old-fashioned and kind-hearted romantic knight and the cunning Dulcinée, with both feet firmly on the ground, is striking and works very much to the production’s advantage. The main character appears ultra-conventional, as if he indeed were a literary personage who has miraculously come alive and is finding it extremely hard to adjust his emotional innocence and humane values to the calculating materialism of the real world.

The Mariinsky symphony orchestra, under the baton of Valery Gergiev, has brought vigor, energy and drive to its captivating interpretation of the score, delivering powerful waves of volume and color. The musicians produced a recording of the opera for the Mariinsky Label in 2012, winning rave reviews, and are clearly quite comfortable with the score.

The show will not only please more conservative members of the audience who find it difficult to digest any modern twist or sharp social context in any historical opera, but will also be a treat for those who have managed to rise above the vicious cliché that being traditional is a recipe for success.

Soul-searching and experiment have been a tangible trend at the Mariinsky during the past several years. It has been Gergiev’s artistic policy to give the company more opportunities to break new artistic ground and be involved in experiments that offer both the musicians and the audiences daring new angles. That is why the Mariinsky chose to work with directors such as Daniele Finzi Pasca, whose productions for Cirque du Soleil have gained international recognition, and Claudia Solti, who has an extensive background in filmmaking. The results of the Mariinsky turning itself into an artistic testing-ground have been a hit-and-miss experience. In this context, Kokkos’ humane and tasteful production, which allows the performers to be spontaneous and grow within the show, is a soothing addition to the repertoire and is bound to achieve lasting popularity.

“Don Quichotte” will next be performed on Feb. 1 at 8 p.m. at the Mariinsky Theater, 1 Teatralnaya Ploshchad. Tel. 326 4141.

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