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Tilting at Windmills:  Massenet's 'Don Quichotte'

Great literature has always been a rich source of inspiration for composers, though the process has taken longer in some cases than others -- and the results have often been mixed, at best.

There's Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, for example. It didn't turn up in the opera house until 200 years or so after it was written, and another century went by before Gounod wrote the first operatic version of the tragedy that's still around today.

On the other side of the coin there's Don Quixote, by Manuel de Cervantes, which started showing up in music almost immediately, at least by historical standards.

Regarded by many as the first true novel ever written, Don Quixote was published in two parts early in the 1600s. The first opera based on the book turned up later that same century, along with some incidental music by Henry Purcell, to accompany a dramatic version of the story. Later there were more operas, several ballets and a widely-played tone poem by Richard Strauss.

Still, when it comes to music, Cervantes does share something with Shakespeare: As with Shakespeare's plays, successful operas based on Don Quixote have been few and far between. The first one, written in 1690, was by a composer named Johann Förtsch -- whose name isn't exactly a household word. Others, also obscure, were written by Giovanni Paisiello and Saverio Mercadante. But there was one composer, Jules Massenet, for whom Don Quixote proved fertile ground.

Massenet's Don Quichotte may stand a rung or two below his better known operas, such as Manon and Werther, yet there is plenty to recommend it. Like Verdi's Shakespeare-based Falstaff, Massenet's opera seems rooted more in its iconic title character than in any single work of literature. And the two operas have more than that in common. Both were written late in their composers' lives and both feature lead characters whose stories find them ridiculed more than often than admired. But Verdi and Massenet, like Shakespeare and Cervantes, tinged the seeming buffoonery of those characters with a touching, world-weary wisdom -- a resigned insight that lets them teach the younger people around them a few sad, but vital lessons.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a new production of Massenet's Don Quichotte from one of Europe's leading theaters, La Monnaie in Brussels. The stars include Belgian bass Jose Van Dam in the title role, with mezzo-soprano Silvia Tro Santafé as Dulcinea and baritone Werner Van Mechelen as Sancho Panza.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2010 WDAV

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.