Disaster was averted at the premiere of Opera Australia’s much anticipated production of Massenet’s Don Quichotte, when guest artist, Ferruccio Furlanetto, considered the supreme interpreter of the role of Don Quichotte, was struck down with a severe throat infection and unable to sing. Understudy, Shane Lowrencev, stepped in at short notice to save the day… or at least this performance.
The role of Don Quichotte is a star part requiring a singer who can dominate the stage. Tall and lanky, Lowrencev, an experienced singer, certainly looked the part. Not surprisingly though, his singing and acting were both rather tentative.
However, the audience was in a forgiving mood and when Artistic Director, Lyndon Terracini took the stage to announce that Lowencev was replacing the ailing Furlanetto at this performance, the news was greeted, not with a sigh of disappointment, but instead, with a sympathetic and supportive round of applause. At the end of the performance his bows were greeted with enthusiastic applause.
Warwick Fyfe provided the highlight of this performance with his finely realised interpretation of Quichotte’s faithful manservant Sancho Panza, in whom he imbued a touching sense of dignity while filling the theatre with resonate vocals.
Don Quichotte is an opera in which not a lot happens. An eccentric Knight arrives in a town with his squire. He becomes bewitched with the glamourous Dulcinea, promises to retrieve her pearl necklace which has been stolen by bandits. After locating the bandits and convincing them to part with the necklace, he returns it to Dulcinea expecting her to reward his bravery with her hand in marriage. When she rejects him, he dies of a broken heart.
However, it is packed with luscious melodies, rich choruses, and lovely arias, all of which are superbly sung by the large cast. Although the role of La Belle Dulcinea offered her limited opportunities, Russian mezzosoprano, Elena Maximova took advantage of every one of them to display her creamy contralto, her dancing prowess, and even win a laugh with her “I’m bored” response to her numerous ardent lovers.
Jane Ede and Anna Dowsley get the opportunity for some cheeky cross-dressing to join John Longmuir and Graeme McFarlane as a quartet of suitors competing against Don Quichotte for Dulcinea’s favours.
Effective mood-setting Spanish dance sequences, choreographed by Tomas Dietz and beautifully performed by the eight dancers, added welcome movement to the crowd scenes, which suffered from old-fashioned staging which for some reason often required the chorus to be crowded together at the back of the stage.
The sets and costumes, courtesy of San Diego Opera, are lovely, but it was surprising to hear excerpts from Massenet’s ballet, El Cid interpolated throughout the score, presumably to cover long set changes. Although these excerpts, lovingly interpreted by Guillaume Tourniaire, and superbly played by the Opera Australia orchestra, allowed the audience to relish the beauty of Massenet’s orchestral writing, and richness of the orchestral sound resulting from recent improvements to the orchestra pit, they did slow down the flow of the opera, and extend the playing time unnecessarily.
Reservations apart, this production of Don Quichotte offers a rare opportunity to experience a magnificently performed opera, packed with glorious music and with a moving finale scene which is likely to stay with you long after you’ve left the theatre.
Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point
Performance: Friday 16 March 2018 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 28 March 2018
Information and Bookings: www.opera.org.au
Image: Warwick Fyfe as Sancho Panza and chorus in Opera Australia’s 2018 production of Don Quichotte – photo by Prudence Upton
Review: Bill Stephens OAM