OPERA / A dastardly Don: Don Quixote, ENO

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The Independent Culture
ENO is to be congratulated on bringing Massenet's opera back to London for the first professional staging since 1912. The work itself has great charms and deserves to be more widely known.

Louise Winters is in sumptuous and sparkling form as Dulcinee - all bounce and flounce until the touching moment when she laughs off Don Quixote's proposal of marriage and simultaneously reveals how it has touched her heart. Alan Opie gives a splendidly vivid performance as Sancho Panza - he also gets the evening's best tune, and makes the most of it. With a strong quartet of soloists as the suitors, the company is off to a fine start. Unfortunately, in nearly every other respect, the ENO does the work a disservice.

At a time when opera is under attack and the ENO in particular needs a success, it is sad to have to report so negatively. Richard van Allan has sung for 30 years with ENO and deserved better: he is miscast in the title role, though he acts it well. It was written for Chaliapin, who was 36 at the premiere in 1910. Don Quixote dies at the end of the opera but, like Boris Godunov (which Chaliapin had just sung), in terms of its vocal demands, the role is not exactly a valedictory one. The conductor, Emmanuel Joel in his British debut, bullies the score in the pursuit of flashy effects and at the expense of any subtlety. Edmund Tracey's translation keeps us at arm's length from the words: Dulcinee is a 'fair traitress'; someone else 'plights his troth' (and the rhyme is 'oath'). But worst of all, Ian Judge's production turns this 'heroic comedy' into a cheap and vulgar musical - not honest vulgar, but mincing, witless vulgar. Don Quixote commands Sancho to give their last money to the beggars. Beggars? On Ian Judge's immaculately camp stage?

So the coins are distributed among the overdressed, saffron and red cute kids and chorus, who were not on their best form. Standards have risen so dramatically that the ENO chorus is currently below the level taken for granted elsewhere in Britain. When he meets the bandits, Don Quixote's nobility and heavenly foolishness disarms them. According to the stage direction he is 'haloed in the last flicker of the fire . . . radiant, he holds up his hands in a gesture of blessing'. Here, Van Allan strides to a prominent spotlight and stands in crucified position in front of it. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza ride tricycles with computer-operated horse's heads on the front, offering much opportunity for chortling.

The revolve brings on more animatronics in the form of stuffed sheep. The Spanish setting cues frantic displays of flamenco dancing. These work best before the music begins because, like Carmen itself, Massenet's music is more French than Spanish, and nothing is harder work than flamenco to music that resists it . . . the danced entr'actes become embarrassing. Having said that, Don Quixote's attack on the windmills is very well staged indeed: against a blood red sky he is carried right up into the flies.

It would be absurd to make great claims for Massenet's opera, but its nave and stylish sentimentality has become over-amplified here. Where Covent Garden allowed sympathetic irony to make Massenet's Cherubin seem a better work than it perhaps is, Judge and his designers John Gunter and Deirdre Clancy have not helped Don Quixote by turning it into a kitsch musical.

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(Photograph omitted)