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On “Don Quichotte” by Jules Massenet

The adventures of a daydreaming chevalier

From 30th May onwards Don Quixote will be chasing rainbows, tilting at windmills and fighting for his one true love. Jules Massenet’s chirpy yet melancholic opera is a musical homage to the great work.

Don Quichotte
Comédie héroique by Jules Massenet
Conductor: Emmanuel Villaume
Director: Jakop Ahlbom
With Alex Esposito, Seth Carico, Clémentine Margaine et al.
Premiere on 30 May 2019

When the Nobel Institute in Oslo asked 100 authors around the world in 2002 to name the “best book in the world” – ever – the runaway winner was “Don Quijote”, a novel over 1,000 pages long, committed to paper 4 centuries ago by an author who, for many years, was many things to many people but most certainly not a successful man of letters. Miguel de Cervantes was born in 1547 close to Madrid. He studied theology, fought in naval engagements, was wounded, taken prisoner by pirates and enslaved in Algeria. Ransomed a year later, he tried his luck as an author, without success. That changed with the publication of “Don Quijote”, which appeared in two volumes in 1605 and 1615 and became an international bestseller. To date there have been over 2,000 editions of the work, which has inspired plays, operas, films and much more. Every child seems to have heard of him, but who exactly is this man who duels with windmills? And what is it about the book that has sustained its popularity down the centuries?

The narrator of the book tells us that Don Quijote devours chivalric novels in such quantities that his brain has “dried up” and he has lost his wits as a result: “He filled his imagination with everything he had read, with enchantments, knightly encounters, battles, challenges, wounds, with tales of love and its torments, and all sorts of impossible things.” Enveloped in the golden age of chivalry, and with little regard for life and limb, Quijote embraces all the adventures that his imagination presents to him. Decked out in shining armour, lance, shield and sword and perched atop an aging steed, he rides forth to do battle with the world’s evils and restore the glory of bygone times. Miguel de Cervantes’s novel is the portrait of a man who sees reality through the prism of an errant knight’s perspective and seeks to make his dreams come true. This is what makes the Quijote character so extraordinary. Don Quijote does not just imagine the world as a better place, he lives it as such. We can dismiss him as a fantasist or crazy person, but his valour and his unshakeable belief in his mission still fascinate.

Having settled on Cervantes material for his opera early in the 20th century, the French composer Jules Massenet opts to leave his own stamp on the work. With his distinctively elegant and sensuous musical language, he focuses on the dreamy knight as a foolish old man besotted with the young and beautiful Dulcinée and transposes the Spanish cavalier into turn-of-the-century Paris. His libretto is less aligned with the original Spanish novel than with a stage play that has been pulling in audiences in Paris and which – true to fin-de-siècle form – transforms the object of Don Quijote’s desire from Cervantes’s country bumpkin into a sophisticated courtesan. Massenet’s opera might as well have been titled “Don Quichotte and Dulcinée”, since the pair’s relationship is the driving force behind the story. To win Dulcinée’s love, Don Quichotte must retrieve a necklace that has been stolen by thieves. When the infatuated knight is captured by the bandits, they are so taken with his magnanimity and naïve good nature that they spare his life and even throw in the necklace for good measure. Returning to the object of his affections, the victorious knight asks for her hand in marriage, only to be laughed at. Devastated, the hoary dreamer dies. Before he breathes his last, Don Quichotte is keen to bequeath something to his trusty companion, Sancho Pansa, but has no possessions to give away save his dreams.

“Don Quichotte” was Massenet’s own form of legacy. Seriously ill, the composer was bedridden when he completed the score. Massenet’s own process of leave-taking and death is mirrored in Don Quichotte’s quest for a joyous life in which dreams become reality. Jules Massenet’s opera was to be his last artistic triumph. The world premiere in Monte Carlo in 1910 led to a string of premieres in quick succession elsewhere in Europe. The last new production to be staged in Berlin was mounted almost 50 years ago – reason enough to join the heroic and amusing “knight of the sorrowful countenance” on a Berlin stage and give flight to dreams once again.

The new production at the Deutsche Oper Berlin features Alex Esposito (Don Quichotte) and Clémentine Margaine (Dulcinée), two world-class singers of the younger generation. The opera is directed by Jakop Ahlbom, who is known for creating magical, oft surreal and nightmarish realms for the stage, which he then tours around Europe.