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article imageThe Canadian Opera Company says 'Olé!' to Don Quichotte Special

By Cate Kustanczy     May 8, 2014 in Entertainment
Toronto - The Canadian Opera Company will be staging Jules Massenet’s 1910 work 'Don Quichotte' for the first time in its history. Along with being a company premiere, it marks the Canadian debut of the work's celebrated lead vocalist.
Don Quichotte is a wonderful message of humanity to everybody,” explains Ferruccio Furlanetto. The world-renowned bass baritone is seated in a sun-drenched room at the Four Seasons Centre that overlooks a bustling Queen Street West in Toronto. “It is what a man should be a few times in his life... just pure love, love for everything that surrounds him: the air, the light, the animals, people. It’s pure love and poetry. In these times, wouldn’t be bad to have more of that.”
Furlanetto has graced the stages of every major opera house — except Toronto’s — for four decades. He has made a name for himself playing some of the opera world’s great bass parts, including Figaro, Boris Godunov, and Don Giovanni. More recently, however, he’s been celebrated for his performance of Don Quichotte in Jules Massenet’s 1910 opera of the same name. Based on Cervantes’ epic novel Don Quixote, this production (the opera opens May 9th) will be first time the opera has been staged by the Canadian Opera Company, and will mark Furlanetto’s Canadian stage debut.
“It’s funny sometimes,” he says, smiling,” to think you've been everywhere, even in Macau, and then you’re missing a country completely… a very important one like this!” He chuckles softly. When I asked him about why the opera isn’t staged more, he grows contemplative.
“The difficulty of this opera… let’s say the vocal aspect of it is fifty percent,” he explains in Italian-accented English, “and then, you need somebody who can put together the acting and interpretation, the colors and the intentions, and maybe for this reason, it is not done much. It is not easy to find people who are an incarnation of this amazing character…”
Canadian Opera Company General Director Alexander Neef agrees with that last bit. “It’s a vehicle for three great singers, but in the end, it’s a vehicle for a great bass,” he remarks. “And what’s so great about Ferruccio is not just that enormous voice but he’s so present onstage. When he walks on, there's nothing else. Nothing exists anymore. The piece doesn't work without that.”
Furlanetto initially approached Neef about coming to sing in Canada in 2008; the bass was singing at Opéra National de Paris, where Neef had been Director of Casting, though the announcement had just been made about Neef’s being hired as the Canadian Opera Company’s new General Director.
“I came into the dressing room before Don Carlo and (Ferruccio) said, ‘I hear you're going to Canada,’” Neef recalls, “and then he said, ‘I’ve never been to Canada. I’d like to come and sing there.’ He was literally the first singer to volunteer to come here, and it took some time to find the right time period … because obviously, I wanted to do something that was really about him.”
Furlanetto is a singer with an impressive resume. As COC General Director Alexander Neef notes  “h...
Furlanetto is a singer with an impressive resume. As COC General Director Alexander Neef notes, “he’s used to working with titans in the business.” Those titans have included conductors Herbert von Karajan, Riccardo Muti, and Valery Gergiev on the podium, and Jean-pierre Ponelle, Giorgio Strehler, and Patrice Chéreau behind the scenes.
Igor Sakharov
Furlanetto has sung the role of Figaro in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, Sparafucile in Verdi’s Rigoletto, and performed both the title role as well as that of Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, King Philip in Verdi’s Don Carlo, and Massenet’s Don Quichotte are all favorite roles.
“If I could sign a paper that I keep doing this order for the rest of my life…” he sighs, “... with some Murder In The Cathedral (Pizzetti’s Assassinio nella cattedrale) here and there...” He trails off, gently smiling.
Neef is quick to point out the historical connections between Godunov and Quichotte. “When you listen to it, there is a little bit of Boris in it,” he says, his eyes widening behind his stylish tortoiseshell frames as he highlights a fascinating bit of operatic history.
In 1908, a year before forming the celebrated Les Ballets Russes, Diaghilev staged a production of Boris Godunov at the Palais Garnier (the Paris Opera House) featuring famed Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin. "That’s how Paris got to know Russian opera,” Neef explains. “I don’t know if Massenet was at that performance."
The French composer, who'd already composed such operatic gems as Werther and Manon, was commissioned by opera impressario Raoul Gunsbourg for the Opéra de Monte-Carlo to write an opera version of Cervantes' famous novel, with Chaliapin in the lead role. "There’s a very close connection with Boris, and Chaliapin, and Don Quichotte," Neef continues. "Some of the monologues (in Quichotte), it’s almost like parody, but it’s like the other side of Boris, for a bass. I think that’s why Ferruccio loves it so much too.”
Having first performed the role in 2002, and to frequent acclaim since, Furlanetto comes to the COC having just sung Massenet’s work at the embattled San Diego Opera Company, where a traditional approach was taken in terms of production. The Canadian Opera Company’s vision will be less orthodox; American director Linda Brovsky’s interpretation (originally produced at Seattle Opera in 2011) offers a whimsical approach, with oversized books and flamenco dancers enhancing the adventures of the title character and his trusty sidekick Sancho Panzo (sung by American baritone Quinn Kelsey, last seen in a 2011 COC production of Rigoletto). The story is simple, with Quichotte, a daydreamer obsessed with books, pursuing coquettish Dulcinée (sung by Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili), whose dazzling necklace is stolen by bandits. Quichotte charms the thieves into returning the jewelry, which he then gives to his much-admired beloved, before she rejects his romantic advances, breaking Quichotte’s heart and ultimately resulting in his demise.
“It’s a like a beautiful parable of life,” Neef reflects, “like all your aspirations and your dreams… it’s borderline to kitsch. When he goes to the bandits and actually gets the necklace and brings it back to her, it could be terribly cheesy, but the way Massenet wrote it, it’s so sincere. (Quichotte) just believes in his mission so much.”
Georgian mezzo soprano Anita Rachvelishvili returns to the Canadian Opera Company as Dulcinée  foll...
Georgian mezzo soprano Anita Rachvelishvili returns to the Canadian Opera Company as Dulcinée, following her triumphant North American debut with the company as Carmen in 2010.
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Rachvelishvili has had a busy schedule of late, what with singing Carmen internationally as well as Amneris in a production of Aida for the Detroit Opera House, and Konchakova in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s grand production of Borodin’s Prince Igor earlier this year at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Although she sang the role of Dulcinée for Teatro Lirico di Cagliari a couple years ago, she's says she's finding more creative satisfaction working on it at the COC.
“It was only two weeks’ rehearsal then,” she says of the 2012 production. “Now, it’s very different. I’m working on this part and I feel like I know what I'm doing. And I want everything to be perfect! After this one, I can say I really did the part, but I cannot say it right now. It feels like the first time.”
Acting is just as important as singing to opera in the 21st century, something Rachvelishvili acknowledges. The mezzo opened the 2009 season at La Scala Milan in Carmen while still a student within the opera company’s academy. Singing opposite her (as Don Jose) was renowned German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, an artist every bit as celebrated for his acting as for his singing abilities. “He was helping me a lot during rehearsals,” she recalls, “and I learned a lot from him.”
She had only sung with Furlanetto once before, in Pizzetti’s Assassinio nella cattedrale, a 1958 opera based on T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral. “He’s a great actor and an amazing singer,” Rachvelishvili says of her Quichotte co-star, “and I’m happy I have this possibility to be onstage with him. We have a lot of stuff to sing together! This is a great experience — I can learn so much.”
One of the things Rachvelishvili isn’t doing is listening to other recordings before the opening on May 9th. This stems from a piece of advice given her by Madame Janine Reise, a former vocal coach to Maria Callas. “She told me the one important thing I’m always doing now: make it your own persona. Make your own character, with your own voice and colors — and then you can just do the research and listen to somebody else. But first, you have to create your own.”
Of her character, she says Dulcinée is “like every woman… she’s beautiful, charming, interesting, and she feels alone, because she is looking for a real man, real love, real passion. We’re all looking for that, all the time.”
Despite the opera s romantic undertones   Don Quichotte  is still an opera that appeals to any age  ...
Despite the opera's romantic undertones, 'Don Quichotte' is still an opera that appeals to any age, particularly younger patrons. “The color of it, the costumes, the music,” Neef says, “it’s all very upbeat. It’s the closest to being a kid’s opera this season.”
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Children and adults alike may delight in knowing that the production uses live animals onstage, something Neef prefers. “You know I’m not necessarily a traditionalist, but this piece doesn't work with fake animals,” he says. “I know in many places they use a stuffed animal (for the opera) and it’s rolled in, and it’s the most ridiculous thing I can imagine. It feels right to keep this piece (of the opera) authentic.”
For his part, Furlanetto found the prospect initially terrifying. “The only thing that was scaring me to hell was the horse,” he confesses. “The horse in question is a very sweet, calm animal, and adorable, so, no problem… but when I arrived, I didn’t think about the house or how the acoustics would be, but only, ‘Oh my God, the horse…!’”
I ask Furlanetto if he feels any sense of being a leader of sorts in Don Quichotte, and the artist raises his eyebrows. “Not really, no!” He laughs. “Maybe it’s selfish, but first of all, I do it for myself. And I think this, in a way, is the only key you have to reach people… because if you are honest with yourself, then you are honest with them. And it will reach their hearts.”
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