Sunday, April 6, 2014

Furlanetto Conquers La Mancha - With Dignity

By Erica Miner 

For two magical hours, Ferruccio Furlanetto lifted an embattled San Diego Opera from its doldrums to the lofty heights only such an artist can invoke, in his exquisite rendering of Jules Massenet’s noble, genteel Don Quixote.

This timeless work about an ageless man existing in a materialistic world devalued of spiritual ideals premiered at the Opéra de Monte Carlo in 1910, toward the end of Massenet’s life. Written in a style uniquely different from his usual, this work incorporates a pastiche of fascinating elements. Massenet's orchestration is at times delicate, at times almost Wagnerian, reflecting his admiration for the German composer and his use of leitmotifs. His obsession with Spanish music and culture, a pervading characteristic of late nineteenth century French composers, is evident in this opera’s distinctive Spanish flavor as it is in Le Cid and his first full-length opera, Don César de Bazan. The influence of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is clear. Massenet even quotes from his compatriot Léo Delibes’ mythology-based battle-themed ballet, Sylvia. Massenet’s personal identification with his protagonist Quixote also showed in his tender feelings for his original Dulcinée, Lucy Arbell, and in his anxieties about death, which, along with love, is one of the opera’s key themes.

The iconic role of chevalier de la longue figure is a pinnacle for an artist with Furlanetto’s legendary status as a singer and actor, with his consummate command of vocal color, emotion and intention. It provides a supreme opportunity to show the deep humanity of a character within a fairytale setting, a personage whom Furlanetto feels every man should be in life: a man, young of heart, whose age is only on the exterior; who goes weak in the knees, whether from worship of an ideal or from his age, with unrelenting passion; whose fervent prayers come straight from the heart; who with pure adoration toward life and nature unconditionally loves whatever surrounds him. In our recent interview, Furlanetto affectingly expressed the Don’s principles: “He’s exactly what men should ideally be for three hours in their life: love for everything that’s around us, whether it’s nature, sky, air, other persons, animals.”

It is difficult to imagine any other singing artist today who could so totally live this character under the skin and capture his essence - his profound sadness without regret; his appreciation of the delicatesse and sacredness of women; his ability to absolutely own his pains, joys, and rapture - with such a degree of dignity as Ferruccio Furlanetto. He creates an atmosphere so magical that he is able to dominate the stage for the entire evening, expressing his visions and dreams with an innocence belying the character’s chronological age, without any pretentiousness. Furlanetto’s quixotic idealism showed whether singing to Dulcinée or to Sancho Panza. Not one soupçon of imperfection surfaced in his singing. The richness never quit, even in the throes of death.

Supporting him was a duo of expert singers whose character portrayals were outstanding. Argentinean bass-baritone Eduardo Chama was the Don’s perfect foil as Sancho Panza, thoroughly in synch with Furlanetto both vocally and dramatically, embodying his share of a relationship in which both characters deeply care for and respect each other. He skillfully balanced his vocal, dramatic and comedic approaches between the lighter, more Mozartean aria early in the opera and the heavier, more imposing singing required of him in the later acts. His La Donna É Mobile monologue was utterly convincing in its vocal sonorousness, consistency, and characterization. As Dulcinea, German mezzo-soprano Anke Vondung sang with spirit and vocal assuredness, effectively showing the contrasts between her character’s capriciousness and her eventual ability to be touched by the depth of Quixote’s soul.

Joel Sorensen as Rodriguez, Simeon Esper as Juan, Micaëla Oeste as Pedro, and Susannah Biller as Garcias, the lively quartet of Dulcinea’s suitors, contributed vocal and dramatic vivacity to the narrative. (And who doesn’t love seeing a woman, albeit dressed as a man, sporting a sword?)

Conductor Karen Keltner demonstrated her remarkable affinity for French repertoire by making the score come alive, alternating between highly charged energy and graceful delicacy. Keturah Stickann’s stage direction made use of her background as a choreographer by adding subtle touches and details to the characters’ movements, all of which seemed natural and well integrated, and marrying the cleverness and poignancy of the libretto with affecting, uncontrived actions.

San Diego Opera is justifiably proud of having created this production. Ralph Funicello’s simple, handsome set designs were superbly effective, giving each of the five acts its own individual atmosphere, and his imaginative solution for the horse and donkey worked well: both were very lifelike and moved nicely for the needs of the characters. The lit up, spinning windmills with their realistic knight-errant attached were fascinating to watch. Marie Barrett’s magical lighting design was strikingly highlighted by the splendid carpet of stars on the sky drop. Kristina Cobarrubia’s vivacious flamenco-style choreography, made more charming by the participation of children, and the symbolic love-rejection-heartbreak mime adding poignancy to Act Four, were enhanced by Missy West’s beautifully detailed costumes. Kudos should go to the expert stage crew for the numerous quick scenery changes required of them during the evening.

Many here in San Diego consider Ferruccio Furlanetto our own National Treasure. As Quixote he embodies, heart and soul, un chevalier en aventure toujours en posture - a knight-errant searching for adventure always at the ready. For those few hours on stage he lives, and we experience, the best of human qualities. In our interview he touchingly evoked the noble Don’s gentility: “His world is collapsing, and like an elephant he goes in a very specific place because he knows he has to die. But he dies beautifully, purely like the rest of his life, with a transparent soul, through which you can see everything: present, past and future.”

Furlanetto also conjures these ideals in terms of the need for a continuing operatic tradition in his “Magic Island” video: “When at the end Don Quichotte is dying and he’s telling Sancho, ‘Do you remember I promised you castles, land, even an island? Now that we are at the end, take this island, the island of my heart… of my poetry… as an inheritance’… I think that music is this island. Music with the emotions that can transfer to somebody who has a sensibility for it, is amazing… something everybody should receive, put in his heart, and keep forever. It makes everybody better... for a few hours you can live in what would be your ideal place.”

The symbolism of this “magic island” would not be lost on any of us here in San Diego. But what matters most about last night’s opening is the incredible work of a devoted team of soloists, choristers, dancers, musicians, directors, designers, stage hands, staff, and countless others who, under exceptionally difficult conditions over these past weeks, banded together to create a distinctly unique “magic island” for its audience. This was an accomplishment that, no matter the eventual outcome of the Opera’s current situation, will forever endure in our hearts and minds.


Photos used by permission of San Diego Opera
Last photo by John Menier, used by permission of UCSD-TV

Erica Miner can be contacted at [email protected]

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