Massenet's comédie-héroïque, like so many other dramatized versions of the story of Don Quixote, relates only indirectly to the great novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. The immediate inspiration was Le chevalier de la longue figure, a play by the poet Jacques Le Lorrain first performed in Paris in 1904. In this version of the story, the simple farm girl Aldonza (Dulcinea) of the original novel becomes the more sophisticated Dulcinée, a flirtatious local beauty inspiring the infatuated old man's exploits.
Conceiving originally Don Quichotte to be a three-act opera, Massenet started to compose it in 1909 at a time when, suffering from acute rheumatic pains, he spent more of his time in bed than out of it, and composition of Don Quichotte became, in his words, a sort of "soothing balm." In order to concentrate on that new work, he interrupted composition of his other opera, Bacchus. Despite its five acts, there is under two hours of music in the opera.
Massenet identified personally with his comic-heroic protagonist, as he was in love with Lucy Arbell who sang Dulcinée at the first performance. He was then 67 and died just two years later. The role of Don Quichotte was one of the most notable achievements of the Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin, for whom the role was specifically conceived. The opera was one of six commissioned from Massenet by Raoul Gunsbourg for the Opéra de Monte-Carlo.
Don Quichotte was premiered in Monte Carlo on 19 February 1910, followed by stagings in Brussels, Marseille and Paris, all in 1910. In 1912 it was presented at the French Opera House in New Orleans (27 January), and the London Opera House (17 May). On 15 November 1913 the work was presented in Philadelphia. The Chicago premiere of the work (by the Chicago Grand Opera Company) took place at the Auditorium Theatre on 27 January 1914 and featured Vanni Marcoux and Mary Garden in the lead roles. Marcoux reprised the title role in Chicago with Coe Glade during the inaugural season of the Chicago Civic Opera House in December 1929. The Metropolitan Opera in New York City performed it nine times in 1926. After devastating reviews of those performances in particular, and criticisms of Massenet's music in general, by Lawrence Gilman in the Herald Tribune, the opera has never been revived at the Met, although it was performed by the Opera Company of Boston (staged and conducted by Sarah Caldwell) in 1974 (with Noel Tyl, Donald Gramm, and Mignon Dunn), and the New York City Opera in 1986.
Besides frequent and periodic revivals of it at Monte Carlo and in France, it was also shown with great success in Italy (Catania in 1928, Turin in 1933 (Teatro Regio), Bologna in 1952, Venice in 1982, Florence in 1992). The Polish premiere was at the Kraków Opera in 1962, and Baltic State Opera premiere was in 1969. Nicolai Ghiaurov sang the title role to great acclaim at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1974 and again in 1981. Lyric Opera of Chicago mounted the work again in 1993 with Samuel Ramey, Jean-Philippe Lafont and Susanne Mentzer. The first revival in Britain since 1912 was given by English National Opera in October 1994, with Richard van Allan as Quixote. The production was presented again in 1996.
More recently, it was staged in Paris in 2000 (with Samuel Ramey in the title role), in San Diego in 2009, starring Ferruccio Furlanetto and Denyce Graves and in 2010 in Brussels with José van Dam and in Palermo with Ferruccio Furlanetto and Arutjun Kotchinian. The opera was performed at the Seattle Opera in February/March 2011 with John Relyea in the title role. In 2012 the Mariinsky Theatre of St Petersburg staged a new production, also featuring Furlanetto.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere cast, 19 February 1910
(Conductor: Léon Jehin)
|La belle Dulcinée (The beautiful Dulcinea)||contralto||Lucy Arbell|
|Don Quichotte (Don Quixote)||bass||Feodor Chaliapin|
|Sancho (Sancho Panza)||baritone||André Gresse|
|Chief of the Bandits||spoken||Delestang|
|Two valets||baritones||Thiriat & Borie|
|Chorus: Gentry, Friends of Dulcinée, Ladies, Bandits, Crowds.|
- Place: Spain
A square in front of Dulcinée's house
A festival is being celebrated. Four hopeful admirers of Dulcinée serenade her from the street. Dulcinée appears and explains philosophically that being adored is not enough, 'Quand la femme a vingt ans' ('When a woman is twenty'). She withdraws and a crowd, largely of beggars, acclaim the arrival of the eccentric knight Don Quichotte (riding on his horse Rossinante) and his comic squire Sancho Panza (on a donkey). Delighted by their attention, Don Quichotte tells a reluctant Sancho to throw them money. After the crowd disperse, Don Quichotte himself serenades Dulcinée, 'Quand apparaissent les étoiles' ('When the stars begin to shine') but he is stopped by Juan, a jealous admirer of the local beauty. A sword fight follows, interrupted by Dulcinée herself. She is charmed by Don Quichotte's antique attentions, chides Juan for his jealousy and sends him away. The old man offers her his devotion and a castle. She suggests instead that he might retrieve a pearl necklace of hers stolen by Ténébrun, the bandit chief. He undertakes to do so, and Dulcinée quickly rejoins her men friends.
In the countryside
A misty morning, Don Quichotte and Sancho enter with Rossinante and the donkey. Don Quichotte is composing a love poem. Sancho delivers a grand tirade against their expedition, against Dulcinée, and against women in general. 'Comment peut-on penser du bien de ces coquines' ('How can anyone think anything good of those hussies'). The mists disperse revealing a line of windmills that Don Quichotte takes for a group of giants. To Sancho's horror, Don Quichotte attacks the first one, only to be caught up in one of the sails and hoisted up in the air.
In the mountains
Dusk, Don Quichotte believes they are getting close to the bandits. Sancho goes to sleep while Don Quichotte stands guard. The bandits suddenly appear and after a brief fight take the knight prisoner. Sancho escapes. Surprised by the defiance of the old man, the bandits give him a beating and intend to kill him, however Don Quichotte's prayer 'Seigneur, reçois mon âme, elle n'est pas méchante' ('Lord receive my soul, it is not evil') moves Ténébrun, the bandit chief, to mercy. Don Quichotte explains his mission 'Je suis le chevalier errant' ('I am the Knight-errant'), and the necklace is returned to him. The bandits ask for the blessing of the noble knight before he leaves.
The garden of Dulcinée's House
Music and dancing, a party is in progress, but Dulcinée is melancholy, 'Lorsque le temps d'amour a fui' ('When the time of love has gone'). Rousing herself, she snatches a guitar and sings 'Ne pensons qu'au plaisir d'aimer' ('Think just of the pleasures of love'). All retire to dinner. Sancho and Don Quichotte arrive. While waiting for Dulcinée, Sancho asks for his reward to which Don Quichotte responds with vague promises of an island, a castle, riches. Dulcinée and her party greet the knight and he returns the necklace to universal acclaim. However, when he asks her to marry him he is greeted with hysterical laughter. Taking pity, Dulcinée tells the others to leave, apologizes 'Oui, je souffre votre tristesse, et j'ai vraiment chagrin à vous désemparer' ('I share your sorrow and am truly sorry') but explains that her destiny, her way of life, is different from his. She kisses him on the forehead and leaves. But the company return to make fun of the old man. Sancho vigorously upbraids them, 'Riez, allez, riez du pauvre idéologue' ('Laugh, laugh at this poor idealist') and takes his master away.
A mountain pass in an ancient forest
A clear starry night, Don Quichotte is dying. He remembers once promising Sancho an island as his reward, and offers him an isle of dreams, 'Prends cette île' ('Take that isle'). Nearing death, Don Quichotte looks up at a star shining brightly above and hears the voice of Dulcinée calling him to another world. Then he collapses as Sancho weeps over his body.
- Massenet, Jules (1970). My Recollections. New York: Greenwood Reprinting. p. 272. ISBN 0-404-04229-5.
- Milnes, Don Quichotte
- "Don Quichotte: Massenet's Opera in London". The Manchester Guardian, 18 May 1912, p. 12
- Robert C. Marsh, "150 Years of Opera in Chicago".
- Wolff S. Un demi-siècle d'Opéra-Comique (1900-1950) Paris: André Bonne, 1953.
- Laurence Gilman, Cast of the Met premiere of Don Quichotte plus Lawrence Gilman, review from the Tribune on archives.metoperafamily.org
- Donald Henahan, "Opera: Massenet's Don Qucichotte is revived", The New York Times, August 3, 1986
- Milnes, Rodney. "Knight of pure spectacle", The Times, 10 October 1994, p. 14
- Milnes, Rodney. "Opera", The Times, 4 September 1996, p. 34
- "Massenet's Don Quixote premieres at the Mariinsky", 28 December 2012, on voiceofrussia.com
- Massenet 1910, "Distribution"; Macdonald 2001, p. 552; Milnes 1992, p. 1227, lists Sancho Panza as a bass-baritone role, Dulcinée as a mezzo-soprano, and Le chef des bandits as a baritone.
- This synopsis by Simon Holledge was first published on Opera japonica http://www.operajaponica.org and appears here by permission.
- Amadeus Almanac, accessed 6 October 2008
- Upton, George P.; Borowski, Felix (1928). The Standard Opera Guide. New York: Blue Ribbon Books. pp. 193–94.
- Kobbé, Gustav (1976). The Complete Opera Book. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, pp. 875–876.
- Macdonald, Hugh (2001). "Jules Massenet", pp. 542–554, in The New Penguin Opera Guide, edited by Amanda Holden. New York: Penguin Putnam. ISBN 0-14-029312-4.
- Massenet, Jules (1910). Don Quichotte, comédie héroique en cinq actes, poème de Henri Cain, d'après Le Lorrain, piano-vocal score. Paris: Heugel. View at the Internet Archive.
- Milnes, Rodney, Don Quichotte in Sadie 1992, vol. 1., pp. 1226–1228.
- Sadie, Stanley, editor (1992). The New Grove Dictionary of Opera (4 volumes). London: Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-56159-228-9.
- Warrack, John and West, Ewan (1992), The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, 782 pages, ISBN 0-19-869164-5.
- Don Quichotte: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
- Don Quichotte: Vocal score (piano reduction), French and English libretto
- Review of 2009 San Diego production