To suggest that the ageing Jules Massenet identified himself with the title character of his Don Quichotte is nothing new — and late works such as this by definition encourage biographical interpretations. One of the main liberties of the opera, premièred in 1910 and very loosely based (via a contemporary verse play) on Cervantes, was to bring the character of Dulcinea (here ‘La Belle Dulcinée’) out of the realm of the imagination and to embody her as a distinctly flesh-and-blood mezzo-soprano. That the first singer to perform Dulcinée, Lucy Arbell, was the object of Massenet’s infatuation only emphasises the biographical parallels, all of which give extra layers to a gently wise and touchingly melancholy work.
What might have been better left hinted at, however, Charles Edwards’s new production at Grange Park Opera heavy-handedly emphasises, as a sentence preceding the otherwise unaltered programme synopsis seems to warn. ‘An elderly composer prepares to present a public showing of his latest opera to his friends in his salon…’ it reads ominously.
The set (also by Edwards) consists of a stage within the stage; a piano sits in front of it, at which our ‘composer’ slumps even before the opera starts. Half of the action takes place on the second stage, half of it off, with Clive Bayley switching between guises as composer and, donning a copper helmet and grasping his lance, knight-errant — or is it the composer ‘acting’ the knight? His adversaries become representatives of the musical avant-garde, their improbable uniform white tie and tails; the famous windmill becomes a metronome in front of which, at one point, a grotesque Stravinsky lookalike stands brandishing a score of The Rite of Spring.
The line between La belle Dulcinée (Sara Fulgoni) and la belle Lucy Arbell is similarly blurred, with Fulgoni clambering on to the piano in her big scene to be surrounded by adoring fans, then signing shellac discs for them. Sancho Panza becomes a sort of theatre manager, one played with great swagger and sung with class by the outstanding David Stout. There are a couple of nice poetic touches, but these are few and far between in a staging that realises its central idea with dogged literal-mindedness. It’s significant that it was really only in the final scene, when the production is at its least intrusive, that the show became emotionally involving.
This was also the only time when Bayley’s central performance felt dramatically convincing. Elsewhere, he unsurprisingly seemed unsure of who he was supposed to be; and he struggled throughout to maintain line and intonation with his big, but somewhat unwieldy, bass. Fulgoni rarely convinced as the object of his desire, either, singing with rich, powerful tone but not communicating much seductiveness — there certainly wasn’t much of the ‘démarche onduleuse’ Don Quichotte sings of. Neither made much of the text, which was far better communicated by Stout and some of those in minor roles. In the small theatre, Renato Balsadonna’s conducting and the playing of the BBC Concert Orchestra made Massenet’s score sound brasher than it is.
Offenbach’s Vert-Vert, staged in full for the first time in the UK by Garsington Opera this summer, was far more straightforwardly presented: a sharply observed, colourful and traditional affair, directed by Martin Duncan and making use of ingenious movable and reversible sets by Francis O’Connor. The piece’s tortuous operetta-by-the-yard plot opens in a girls’ boarding school with the death of a parrot (Vert-Vert), for no better reason, it seems, than to provide an excuse for some mock solemnity, a caw-cawing chorus and Pythonesque jokes in David Parry’s translation (once buried, the poor creature is hardly mentioned again).
The parrot is replaced by Valentin, an unlikely resident of the school, and what happens thereafter seems largely contrived to provide the build-up for the set pieces — some of which are, admittedly, delightful. Along the way, it is revealed that several of the school’s other residents are in fact variously engaged and infatuated, and there’s plenty of broad, but hardly biting, satire on institutions. The school, the military and the theatre are gently mocked. The music, at its best, is ingenious, with the accompaniment to Baladon the dancing master’s lecture on his art especially clever.
The cast is excellent, too, led by Fflur Wyn and Robert Murray, both singing with disarming clarity and grace as Mimi and Valentin. Yvonne Howard is a brilliantly matronly assistant headmistress, secretly engaged to Geoffrey Dolton’s over-the-top Baladon. The rest of the singers, plus the orchestra under Parry, give it their all. They do so in the service of a piece that’s no doubt insubstantial and forgettable, and whose jokes are more likely to inspire groans than laughs. But as performed here, it’s harmless, and a long way from charmless.
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