Chaliapin Favorite Don Quixote in Alameda

by Janos Gereben from San Francisco Classical Voice

One of the first great performances I heard on record (it was a real record, made of vinyl) at a young age was Feodor Chaliapin, singing the final scene from Massenet’s Don Quixote (Don Quichotte in the original French). The experience stayed with me for decades. The role was a favorite of the great Russian bass, and he gave it depth, pathos, and majesty.

Chaliapin in the 1933 Adventures of Don Quixote film.  

As with many entries on Massenet’s huge list of operas, Don Quixote is rarely performed in the U.S., so grab the opportunity when Island City Opera offers it March 1–12 in the Alameda Elk’s Lodge Ballroom. The cast features William Pickersgill in the title role, Buffy Baggott as Dulcinée. Igor Vieira sings Sancho Panza, and he is also stage director. Philip Kuttner is music director.

The opera was Massenet’s last, and it’s said to have autobiographical references. Musical highlights match the story’s famous turns — the windmill, the prayer, the duet with Dulcinée, the mountain scene, when Quixote and Sancho Panza are besieged by bandits, and finally, the touching death scene. The score is distinguished by both Massenet’s sweeping Romantic melodies and Spanish dance music.

As Massenet’s swan song, it was also Chaliapin’s. A recent program note from the Mariinsky Theater says:

The opera is lively and light, rich in humor and the varied natures of its characters —devoid of that sense of tragedy and doom that the public expect from a stage version of the classical Don Quixote … it is superbly orchestrated, the simplicity of its language shaded by the refinement of the instrumentation.

Massenet’s decision to tackle the subject was to a large extent influenced by Fyodor Chaliapin, who had long held a dream of creating such an image on the operatic stage. Chaliapin sang at the opera’s premiere in Monte Carlo and in its first production in Russia at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.

Chaliapin’s work on the stage incarnation of Don Quixote has been ranked alongside the singer’s other crowning glories in opera — Boris Godunov and Salieri. Chaliapin’s shadow long hung over Massenet’s work — where can you find a singer who can not only sing but who can create a suitable image as well? There were no newspapers, either in France or in Russia, whose critics were not delighted with the great singer’s final role. And almost all of them agreed on one matter: “Don Quixote is not merely the bearer highly idealistic intentions. He infects others with them … Chaliapin — Don Quixote — a symbol.