SAN DIEGO — If Reprise Theatre Company can dust off the musty 1965 musical "Man of La Mancha," as it did last weekend at UCLA, then surely reviving a gracious, spiritual operatic representation of the Don from a century ago is a possible dream. Score one for San Diego Opera, which unveiled a new production of Massenet's neglected "Don Quixote" on Saturday in the city's Civic Theatre. I saw the second performance Tuesday night.
If we are having a Massenet moment right now, it is singer-driven. Los Angeles Opera mounted a sexy "Manon" two seasons ago for Anna Netrebko. The Metropolitan Opera recently revived "Thais" because Renee Fleming wanted it. San Diego's "Don Quixote" exists because the exceptional Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto is a company favorite.
Massenet's Don is the patron saint of cranky aging lovers. The French composer was 67 when he wrote the opera in 1909 and was still prone to taking up with his leading ladies. The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, which is a tad sniffy about Massenet's fluffy side, describes him as portraying "himself (flatteringly) as the courtly, vague, otherworldly knight and the ambitious Lucy Arbell (less flatteringly) as the tough but ultimately sensitive gold-digger." That gold-digger is Dulcinea, who never appears in Cervantes' classic novel but is the mezzo-soprano flirt in the opera, which is based on a 1904 French play.
The opera, which premiered in 1910, fared better in France than most of Massenet's work from his last decade (he died in 1912), but the composer was decidedly old-fashioned in a Paris where Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky were on the rise. Nor did "Don Quixote" catch on in the English-speaking world. The Met presented it in 1926 and never again.
But the courtly, vague, otherworldly knight remains catnip for mature basses who have kept it alive (if barely). Furlanetto is 59, but his rich, deep voice remains ever reliable. I was seated far back in the Civic Theatre -- too far back to see his facial expressions -- but I can report that he conveyed musical nuance to even an ungracious hall's furthest reaches. He is a magnificent Don.
And, yes, there is a kind of dog-eared magnificence to this opera as well. Massenet had reached a quintessential late style, one in which ambiguity is admitted and every melodic stroke is a deft one. Characters, their inner and outer lives, are carefully drawn.
In five concise acts, the Don falls for Dulcinea in a Spanish square. He attacks windmills. He retrieves Dulcinea's stolen necklace from bandits and, in a moment of religious exultation, becomes Christ-like by converting the bad guys to his exalted sense of chivalry. He is rebuffed by the flirtatious Dulcinea, but his spiritual depth does at least bring a tear to her cheek. His buffo sidekick, Sancho Panza, becomes his poignant defender. The Don dies a stirring, if sentimental, death under a starry sky on a mountain pass.
Massenet's most modern accomplishment is to render the Don's madness as a persuasive mystical vision rather than simple battiness. Ian Campbell's production, however, is literal and little more. Ralph Funicello's Spanish sets are generic, as are Missy West's costumes. Furlanetto is given a doddering fool's silly shocks of hair.
Still, surprisingly much of the moving beauty of the work comes through. Furlanetto is ever elegant, graceful in conveying a melody, equally so in maintaining dignity onstage. Massenet envisioned Sancho Panza as a comic foil, and bass-baritone Eduardo Chama is amusing but needn't be quite so low-key.
Denyce Graves is a sultry Dulcinea. Her voice now breaks into many parts. The low notes draw you in, but her upper range is unreliable and pushes you away. She is not Massenet's small-town tart but a biblical seductress.
Nothing that surrounds these principals is of particular interest, certainly not Nicola Bowie's choreography, as generically Spanish as the decor. But the chorus is quite good, and the San Diego Symphony, capably and straightforwardly conducted by Karen Keltner, is superb.
Campbell, who is San Diego Opera's artistic director, announced from the stage Tuesday that the economic downturn would force the company to downsize next season to four operas instead of the usual five. He might consider saving money with less-fancy sets as well. "Don Quixote" is most effective when there is but a tree onstage and stars on the backdrop. But his reasons for reviving the opera were sensible; his reasons for presenting Furlanetto, brilliant.
Where: San Diego Opera at San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 3rd Ave., San Diego
When: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Price: $35 to $190
Contact: (619) 533-7000 or www.sdopera.com