AUDIENCES at the Opera house on Friday (March 16) were treated to a rare display of operatic strength when singer Ferruccio Furlanetto fell ill and was replaced at the last minute in his celebrated role of Don Quichotte, French for Don Quixote, by Australian bass-baritone Shane Lowrencev.
The likelihood is that by today, Furlanetto will be back in full voice to perform in this short season of an opera never before staged by the flagship opera company.
Originally staged by San Diego Opera in 2009, this revival has been directed by Hugh Halliday, but the set and costumes created by Ralph Funicello and Missy West for San Diego have been retained.
The choreography, however, has been done by Canberra flamenco master Tomás Dietz, already the veteran of many revivals of “Carmen” for Opera Australia.
When Opera Australia director Lyndon Terracini came before the audience to announce that Furlanetto was indisposed, the response was a roar of approval for the choice of Lowrencev to replace him and, in that curious phenomenon where a potential theatrical disaster turned to triumph, he had an enthusiastic response not seen in a long time.
It was Lowrencev’s job to cover the role, and he did so with quiet dignity, his tall, lean looks the perfect match for “The Knight of the Long Countenance”. Warwick Fyfe, playing his legendary sidekick, Sancho Panza, held the transition in players together with his convincing performance as the humble servant who gradually comes to understand the nobility of his master.
This unusual work will doubtless disappoint those hoping for a traditional verismo opera. With a very slight plot, it was enhanced by projections of silent movie-style quotations from Cervantes. These acted as entr’actes, supported by music that included selections from Massenet’s opera “Le Cid”.
The opera is not about love or hatred, but is rather a series of ideas, insights into the nature of the idealistic Don.
Small matter that Massenet depicts Dulcinea (Dulcinée in French) as an elegant lady dripping with diamonds, far from Cervantes’ gritty tavern girl Aldonza, this is less of a drama than a schematic construct, with the libretto by Henri Cain often venturing into comedy.
It looked terrific. The beautiful village costumes set the Spanish atmosphere for Dietz’s vigorous choreography, although the music usually transitioned swiftly into something more Gallic, with occasional overtones of pastoral music.
The giant windmills emerging from the mists were brilliantly achieved in Cervantes’s most famous scene of all, while life-sized effigies of Don Quixote’s horse Rocinante and Sancho’s dappled donkey stood by like silent sentinels.
Much of music is presented by Tourniaire as quiet and gentle, with the notable exception of several brilliant coloratura moments for Elena Maximova as Dulcinée. Lowrencev eschews dramatic fireworks to present the character of Don Quixote at his most noble and idealistic, most powerful in the conclusion to Act III, where a scruffy bunch of bandits beg for his blessing.
The final two acts move swiftly, with ravishingly delicate music to the conclusion. Here Massenet and Caiin contrast the superficial snobbery of Dulcinée’s suitors, (John Longmuir was most convincing as Juan) with the honesty of the Don. Maximova handled Dulcinée’s growing understanding that the Don’s brand of madness is “sublime” with sensitivity, considering how silly some of her earlier flirtatious scenes had been.
The concluding at five deaths gives the centre stage to Fyfe as Sancho ushers the dying Don Quixote to his resting place. This quietly affecting scene is consistent with the light touch seen throughout this opera, even though the concluding chords are as tragic as anything you could find in Verdi.
There won’t be many opportunities to see “Don Quichotte”. This is not a high tragic opera – some of it is too funny for that – but it opens up a refined listening experience. It was also a triumph for Shane Lowrencev, although no doubt Ferruccio Furlanetto’s return to the stage will make for a very different experience.