Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
March 19, 2018

“Don Quichotte is exactly what every man should be for at least three or four hours in his life,” Ferruccio Furlanetto told Limelight ahead of his performances in the title role of Massenet’s opera for Opera Australia. “It’s so fascinating to be able to live for these few hours inside this character.” The Italian bass, who was in Sydney just last year doing Schubert’s Winterreise and a programme of Russian songs, has spent more than just a few hours as Cervantes’ knight-errant since his first performance in the role in 2002, and is now the leading living interpreter of the role.

Don Quichotte, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Opera AustraliaFerruccio Furlanetto as Don Quichotte. Photos © Prudence Upton

Massenet’s opera, with libretto by Henri Caïn, distils Cervantes’ mammoth, episodic novel (by way of Jacques le Lorrain’s play Le chevalier de la longue figure) into five relatively short acts, that relate the idealistic knight’s quest to retrieve a stolen necklace from the bandit Ténébrun in the hope of winning the heart of Dulcinée, tilting at windmills along the way.

From its premiere with Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin in the title role at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo in 1910, the work has been a star vehicle that lives or dies by the performance of the lead. And while Furlanetto was too unwell to perform on opening night (Australian bass-baritone Shane Lowrencev took up the lance instead), on Monday night the Italian bass showed us just why he’s become synonymous with the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance.

Don Quichotte, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Opera AustraliaFerruccio Furlanetto and Warwick Fyfe in Opera Australia’s Don Quichotte

Furlanetto’s bass is rich and dark, but it’s his finely crafted attention to line and his emotional reading that really made this performance tick. From his act one serenade to Dulcinée, Quand apparaissent les etoiles (When the stars begin to shine) to his final scene with Sancho Panza, Furlanetto’s Don is both comical and Christ-like, but – ultimately – very human. If there were moments when the bass seemed fatigued on Monday, with a few notes sitting slightly under pitch in the final act, his performance was so captivatingly heartfelt it gave you goose-bumps – despite, or perhaps because of, the absurdity of the situations the knight-errant finds himself in.

Warwick Fyfe is marvellous as the Don’s right-hand man Sancho, providing vocal strength, surety and a comic performance that sits just the right side of hammy, shifting when required into earnest and impassioned advocacy for his master – he plays off Furlanetto with obvious relish.

Don Quichotte, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Opera Australia, Elena MaximovaJane Ede, Anna Dowsley, Elena Maximova and John Longmuir in Opera Australia’s Don Quichotte

Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Maximova brings plenty of vocal heft to Dulcinée, with an earthy power to her low register and a sweeter sound – capable of a potent unfurling – up high. She makes for a steely Dulcinée, railing against the ennui of her exalted social position, but demonstrates a remarkable delicacy in her aria Lorsque le temps d’amour a fui (When the time of love has flown). The effect of the aria is undercut, however, by some heavy-handed choreography for a dancer who joins Maximova on stage, that both shatters the intimacy of the scene and distracts from the mezzo’s exquisite performance.

Tenors Graeme Macfarlane and John Longmuir, along with soprano Jane Ede and mezzo Anna Dowsley in the pants roles, put in a fine turn as Dulcinée’s gaggle of admirers, their act one quartet nicely rendered.

While there are no real show-stopper arias, the pleasure of Massenet’s score is in its evocative colour – painted with vivid strokes by Guillaume Tourniaire and an Opera Australia Orchestra in fine form indeed. The plucked strings of Quand apparaissent les etoiles, the claustrophobically ticking woodblocks of the windmill scene, the brass moments foreshadowing the bandits and the cello solo before the final act were all highlights, as was the beautiful flute and cor anglais solo in the excerpts from Massenet’s ballet Le Cid that covered the long set change following the first act.

Don Quichotte, Opera AustraliaFlamenco dancers in Opera Australia’s Don Quichotte

This Ralph Funicello production from San Diego Opera, designed especially for Furlanetto, is serviceable but dated – the opening act looks like it could have been recycled from some retired Carmen – likewise, Missy West’s costumes get the job done but little more. But the windmills of the second act, emerging with dream-like menace from the mist, are wonderful and if the knight’s steed looks like a hobby-horse it only enhances the strange world of fantasy, idealism and delusion that Don Quichotte inhabits.

Ultimately, it’s Furlanetto who carries this production. The world he draws the audience into is one that’s largely in his head – and he does it with such skill and such heart, supported by solid performances from Maximova and Fyfe, that the other details don’t matter. It’s well worth spending a few hours with Furlanetto’s Don.

Opera Australia’s Don Quichotte is at the Sydney Opera House until March 28, and then at Arts Centre Melbourne May 3 – 12