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Massenet: Don Quichotte
Furlanetto, Kiknadze, Serov, Soloists' Ensemble of the Mariinsky Academy of Young Singers, Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, conductor
Review By Joe Milicia


  Don Quichotte is the third recording venture beyond the Russian repertoire for Valery Gerviev and the Mariinsky Theatre on the latter's own label. Having released Parsifal and Lucia di Lammermoor with international star casts, the St. Petersburg company now turns to Jules Massenet's tragicomedy about the last days of Don Quixote, a short opera created for the great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin, performed here by the esteemed Italian Ferruccio Furlanetto. It's a worthy offering, especially for fans of Furlanetto and Gergiev, though it faces some serious vocal competition and is sonically a letdown in certain respects.

Don Quichotte(1909), one of the composer's last operas, may not be consistently on the level of Massenet's best work — say Werther and Manon — in either its music or its dramatic arc. To condense Cervantes' sprawling novel into a manageable stage work, Massenet based his libretto on a recent stage success in which Don Quixote is reduced to tilting with windmills, encountering some bandits, and pining away for an actual Dulcinea — a village beauty who reminds the Don of his ideal love. As a vehicle for a bass, it provides one of Massenet's signature "big tunes" — a melody of tenderness and longing—and a noble death scene, along with some comic business in between. Chaliapin famously recorded the death scene, and the opera has been championed in both the opera house and on disc by the likes of Nikolai Ghiaurov and José Van Dam.

Furlanetto is of course a superb singer, as anyone who has heard, for example, his Metropolitan Opera performances of Verdi (King Philip, Fiesco), will appreciate. He was the first Italian to sing the ultimate Russian bass role of Boris Godunov at the Mariinsky. His Don Quichotte has the lyricism and nobility, not to mention the power and clarity, the role requires. Still, on this recording he frequently seems a bit tired, whether vocally or in terms of engagement in the part I'm not sure. I would have liked a more ardent rendition of the "big tune" (Quandapparaissent les étoiles) or more passionate dialogue with Dulcinée, for example. On the other hand, mezzo Anna Kiknadze seems fully involved in her role as the flirtatious, not entirely heartless village beauty — a non-tragic Carmen (another role which Kiknadze sings, no doubt excitingly). Her lovely, agile and sensuous voice makes every syllable of the part seem characterful. I cannot feel the same enthusiasm for the Sancho Panza, also a bass role on this recording. Though a young artist, Andrei Serov manages to sound older than Furlanetto, perhaps trying too hard to create a comical character through the voice alone.

Meanwhile, Gergiev and his orchestra milk the score for all it's worth, beginning with the festive music that opens the opera and continuing through the fog-drenched opening of the windmill scene, the rousing bandit encounter, and the opera's two poignant orchestral interludes. (The first features a soaring clarinet solo and the second a melancholy cello — nothing comparable to Richard Strauss' cello-portrait of the Don, but pleasant enough.) Even in a brief moment which the libretto describes as "Very softly night falls. The sky is deep blue and quite clear. A moonbeam illuminates Don Quixote," Gergiev mirrors these words in music uncannily well. Unfortunately, I must report that while the orchestra is extremely well recorded — vivid and upfront—the singers are rather recessed, and worse, seem to occupy some hollow space. I had to turn up the volume considerably to appreciate the vocal nuances, only to be blasted by orchestral outbursts, especially at the ends of acts. As for the chorus, at any volume they sound a bit blurred.

Listeners seeking an alternative Don Quichotte have a choice of van Dam with Teresa Berganza, Michel Plasson conducting, on EMI or the older Decca recording with Ghiaurov and Regine Crespin, led by Kazimierz Kord. Another option is a recent DVD starring van Dam and led by Marc Minkowski.





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