Don Quixote

Massenet and Don Quixote [Don Quichotte]

Jules Massenet was born in Montaud, St. Etienne in 1842, the youngest of twelve children. His mother was his piano teacher and he decided early on that his life’s work would be in music; at the age of 11 he was accepted into the Paris Conservatoire’s piano class. By the age of 18 he was on his own, teaching private piano lessons, playing in a string of Paris cafés and working as a percussionist in some of the city’s theatres. Continuing in composition at the conservatoire in 1860 he came under the influence of the theatre composer Ambroise Thomas, who was to appoint Massenet to the post of professor of composition some years later. Under Thomas’ tutelage, Massenet won the highly coveted Prix de Rome, the national prize for composition, which afforded him two years at the Villa Medici in Rome to study and work. He didn’t begin producing opera until the late 1860s with La grand’tante at the Opéra-Comique in 1867 and Don César de Bazan, also at the Comique, in 1872. His most successful early opera, however, was the exotic Le roi de Lahore which was presented by the Paris Opéra’s new Palais Garnier in 1877. This was a large, sprawling work in the Meyerbeer tradition with a large chorus and orchestra and oriental-Indian touches that made it an instant hit.

Georges Bizet, composer of Carmen and The Pearl Fishers was a friend of Massenet’s but the only contemporary whose work could possibly have challenged his own in the public sphere. With Bizet’s death in 1875, Massenet had clear sailing to the premiere position of chief French composer of opera in the late 19th century. A string of operatic hits followed Le roi, among them Hérodiade (1881), Manon (1884), Le Cid (1885) and Esclarmonde (1889). Werther appeared in 1892, but not in Paris; it was first performed at the Vienna Hofoper and was well received. This was followed by Thaïs (1894) and La Navarraise (1894), Massenet’s attempt at a verismo style. Later works did not fare so well as these ‘middle-period’ operas but revivals of Werther, Manon and Thaïs established him as one of the great French opera composers, bringing him considerable international attention and wealth. Like other composers of the time, Wagner, Verdi and Puccini among them, Massenet had a soft spot for lovely female singers. The soprano Sybil Sanderson, for whom Esclarmonde and Thaïs were written, and the mezzo Lucy Arbell, for whom the role of La Belle Dulcinée was created, were very influential in his life if not romantically entwined with him.

Don Quichotte (1910) was part of a commission of six operas by the impresario Raoul Gunsbourg of the Monte Carlo Opéra (director of the company from 1893 to 1951…58 years!), giving the composer an important source of new work towards the end of his life in 1912. No lack of funds was lavished on these operas (including Thérèse [1907, another vehicle for mezzo Arbell], Le jongleur de Notre-Dame [1902], Chérubin [1905], Roma [1912] and Cléopâtre [premiered posthumously in 1914]) and they were given spectacular productions with stellar casts. The creation of the title role of Don Quichotte for the reigning Russian basso Fyodor Chaliapin was enough to bring in the international audience for its premiere on February 19, 1910. Chaliapin was regularly found on the cast lists at the Monte Carlo and he had an outstanding international reputation even if Massenet seems to have been rather dismissive of his gifts. For the singer, the role seems to have been a perfect fit. On his first encounter with the work at a read-through with the composer and librettist Henri Cain in 1909, he burst into tears at hearing the beginning of the last act. Massenet had to calm him down before he could continue playing the piece on the piano. Of the event, Chaliapin wrote in his memoir: “I could of course mention many other composers who have written more profound music than Jules Massenet. Yet I must confess that I never remember being more intensely moved than by his interpretation of the score as he played it to me that day for the first time”.

Massenet wrote Don Quichotte under trying circumstances. He was coming off the colossal failure of his opera Bacchus at the Paris Opéra in 1909, but more seriously he was dealing with a severe bout of rheumatism that kept him in bed for weeks. It was during this difficult period that he wrote the new opera. So confident was he in its eventual success that he had the score and parts printed entirely even before the first rehearsal.

The Source: Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Le Lorrain’s Don Quichotte

Certainly one source of the opera is the great novel by the great Spanish literary figure Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra; but more immediately (and more specifically) the source was a treatment of the novel for the stage by French playwright Jacques Le Lorrain. We’ll deal with Cervantes first.

Cervantes was born in Alcalá de Henares, Spain, outside of Madrid in 1547. His family moved about Spain quite a bit due to his father’s livelihood as an itinerant surgeon, but he did receive some important early education in Madrid which helped stimulate his literary talent. In early adulthood he spent time in Rome in the service of Cardinal Acquaviva, then joined the Spanish army embarking from Naples to join in the Battle of Lepanto against the Turks in 1571. Wounded in battle, he attempted to return to Spain in 1575 only to be captured by pirates who imprisoned him in Algiers for five years. He was ransomed from prison by the charitable monks from the order of the Trinitarians and finally returned to Spain, in their debt, in 1580. After this he spent time as a requisition official for the armada until after their defeat at the hands of the English in 1588. During this time he published his first prose work, La Galatea, a work that began to bring him notice. Theatrical work followed, as well as shorter works which were eventually gathered under the title Exemplary Works.

Don Quixote de la Mancha (El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha) was published in two parts, the first in 1605 and the second in 1615. Generally speaking it deals with the adventures of an elderly Spanish gentleman who, suffering from madness, fashions himself a ‘knight-errant’ and travels throughout the Spanish countryside seeking valor and fame through the righting of all wrongs. With his faithful sidekick, the illiterate peasant Sancho Panza, he encounters all manner of people who react in shock, dismay or with mockery as he attempts to complete his chivalrous quest.

One of the more interesting aspects of the tale of the novel is that after the publication of Part I another Spanish author issued a ‘Part II’, providing a kind of unauthorized sequel to the story. The author, Alonso Fernández de Tordesillas, was surely dismayed when Cervantes came out with his Part II which involves Quixote hearing about the pirated book at an inn, then rushing with Sancho Panza to Barcelona where they kidnap one of the pirate-authors fictional characters!

The Cervantes novel has acquired status as one of the great books of Western literature. It is filled with wonderful vignettes, beautiful characterizations and satirical commentary on the behavioral modes of the day. References to Quixote’s imagining of a common street girl as Dulcinea, a noble woman in distress, his companion Sancho Panza, and his battle against the windmills (monstrous giants in his fevered imagination) are part of everyday literary parlance. Unfortunately, these were the only remnants of the Cervantes original that remained in Le Lorrain’s 1904 theatrical version, Le Chevalier de la longue figure, which played at the Théâtre Victor Hugo.

Le Lorrain was a fascinating literary figure in his own right, a shoemaker or cobbler from the south of France who had poetic pretensions. He fought long and hard for publication and after the writing of Le Chevalier tried to get the play produced at both the Théâtre Français and the Odéon before finally achieving success at the more experimental Hugo. The playwright didn’t realize that the play was finally going into production in Paris; when he did he roused himself from his sickbed and traveled to the capitol to see his work on the stage. He was in such bad shape physically that he had to be carried into the theatre on a litter, and he died a few days after the performance. It was this same production that Raoul Gunsbourg, the general director of the Opéra de Monte Carlo, saw and stirred him to commission Massenet to create an opera based on it to perform at the Monaco-based company.

Critics over the years have attacked the libretto of Henri Cain (Massenet’s most often used librettist) for not referring more closely to the Cervantes original and relying so heavily on the Le Lorrain verse drama. The most commonly held belief is that the Quixote who is recreated in the opera is only a caricature of the fictional hero, that Dulcinea is turned into yet another operatic ‘coquette’ or stock character from the tradition of the opera-comique, and that other than the windmill incident the rest of the libretto is created from whole cloth, having no relationship to Cervantes’ creation. These are valid points. But it is the music and the presence of an outstanding singing actor in the role of Quixote that can make all the difference in this work and lift it considerably higher in artistic quality than the poor 1904 comédie-heroïque upon which it is based.

The Music of Don Quichotte

Massenet was essentially a shy man who had an overwhelming desire to be liked, a personality trait which is key to an understanding of the nature of his music. Above all, the composer sought to please rather than to challenge his audience. Massenet sought to entertain and dazzle. Only on rare occasion do any of his 30-plus operas rise to the level of depth to be seen and heard in the operas of his older contemporaries Wagner and Verdi, both of whom were still alive during the creation of his middle-period works, or even his exact contemporaries Bizet (whose Carmen was conscientiously provocative) or Debussy (whose Pelleas et Mélisande is a hallmark of twentieth century musical and operatic achievement). In a way, Massenet’s scores were the quintessential equivalent of the belle-epoque style with its roots in Orientalism, decoration for its own sake and curvilinear designs. This style is noted for its attractive, superficial beauty and its popularity with the bourgeoisie. If even inexact parallels can be made between music and art or architecture, this not only describes the music of Massenet but of Saint-Saëns, Chabrier and Charpentier in France, and Mascagni, Leoncavallo and Puccini who carried the burden of the Italian operatic tradition.

While Esclarmonde, Le Roi de Lahore, Hérodiade and Thaïs represent Massenet’s forays into the exotic East, Manon, Werther and Don Quichotte represent an attempt to confront heavier literary themes and he did so with varying degrees of success. What all of these scores have in common is also that with which he is so often compared to Gounod: a great facility for melody. These melodies or tunes were crafted purely towards the characterization of the operatic roles presented to him in his chosen librettos. For instance, through careful listening one will notice distinguishing musical ‘marks’ that characterize Quixote, Sancho Panza and Dulcinea in Don Quichotte…the quasi-academic music of the knight, the buffo style of his servant and the frivolous, coquettish turns of phrase that appear in the music of the idealized maiden. There is, as well, a reliance on clever pastiche, especially in the first act, with the composer seeming to attempt to out-Carmen his old friend Bizet in the recreation of Spanish-flavored music.

Great musical moments abound in Don Quichotte. All of Act II is really quite a brilliant re-creation of the windmill scene from the original novel, from the orchestral description of dawn and Quixote’s mangled attempt to create a rhyming chanson to sing for his beloved, through Sancho’s condemnation of womankind (a clever satire on Leporello’s Catalogue Aria), to the comic horror of the “géant, monstrueux cavalier” that the main character sees in the otherwise harmless windmills. The Don’s duet with Dulcinea in Act Four is certainly a highlight, as two different musical worlds gently collide for a few minutes while the ‘lady of his thoughts’ tries to reveal to him the impossibility of their love in the face of cold reality. And the final scene, with Dulcinea’s voice wafting sweetly above the body of the dying knight, is considered a great coup for any singing actor.

Massenet’s music is often considered overly sentimental and one wonders if he will ever receive the kind of latter-day reconsideration that has been given to composers like Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky. After all, Massenet was a man of the theatre (much like Puccini, the ‘Italian Massenet’) and a master of the orchestra (he even made a lady out of the saxophone, whose sensuous timbre can be heard in Le roi de Lahore, Hérodiade and Werther). This early enthusiastic admirer of Wagner always kept a sense of French reserve (to his credit) and knew how to build a seamless dramatic scene without broad siding the audience with bombast. No wonder turn-of-the-century audiences loved him; now it’s our turn.

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