AVA's Glittering DonQ

Don Quixote
By Jules Massenet
Academy of Vocal Arts, Philadelphia

Williams and Bilgili in DonQ
Photo credit Paul Sirochman.

Two years ago, director Tito Capobianco, was back at AVA after a long absence, to stage Don Giovanni and sadly had to leave before the opening of the sold out run because of the death of his wife. So it is doubly meaningful that he was able to return to direct two productions at AVA this year.

This month Capobianco chose the rarely performed Jules Massenet opera Don Quichotte and it is no less than a triumph from every angle. The opera itself is so good you wonder why it isn't done more, then you hear why, it demands orchestral precision and strong leads who can bring full characters vocally and as actors. It stars bass Burak Bilgili, alternating in the role with current AVA resident artist, the versatile character singer Patrick Guetti.

Quichotte, the decrepit knight who tilts at windmills, inspires valiant acts among thieves and serenades the sultry Dulcinee outside her balcony. He has left his castle with his faithful servant Sancho Panza in noble pursuit of justice, truth and love.

On opening night Bilgili sang opposite Chrystal E. Williams as Dulcinee, who looked and sounded as ravishing as any fantasy that Quichotte has in his mind's eye. Dulcinee is the unapologetic libertine, who has the young men of the village eating out crumbs of love at her feet. But, she shield her heart of gold and it intrigues her that she is Quichotte's muse- even as everyone else mocks him when he enters town in banged up armor, dusty doublet and ridiculous lance. Dulcinee is none the less charmed and gives him a mission to retrieve her pearls from the thieving vagabonds. So Quixote and Sancho set out to their lair and while Sancho snoozes the thieves tie his master up. As Quichotte sings of a heart pure and is ready to die, the criminals are transformed by his courage and release him.

Meanwhile, Dulcinee is hosting an orgy and she passes off man after man and dances a tango in scene integrated and unfussy choreography by Rosa Mercedes. Quixote returns with the pearls and proposes marriage, she laughs at him and his heart is wounded. She confesses that her love for him is real, but could only be a fantasy, she could never give herself to such an old man. Sancho leads him off to their next adventure.

The five acts build with ease and detailing, credit Capobianco's signature tight pacing that works very well with Massenet's score, which is a masterpiece of the French orchestral lyricism. Meanwhile, Henri Cain's libretto has to be one of the finest opera books with source material from classic literature. From the sparkling orchestral-choral opening, DonQ just uncorks under conductor Christopher Macatsoris. Almost misleading to talk about standouts among the players, they were uniformly that good, but must mention the lead violin lines by concertmaster Igor Szwec and end act cello solo played with sublime tone by Vivian Barton Dozor.

Nelson in DonQ

Bilgili rolled out Quixote as a full formed knight, but was less inventive as a deluded fool. Bilgili gave a very literary interpretation and seemed vocally restrained, though he let the full force of his voice out in the thieves act. Two years ago, Cyrstal E. Williams and Zachary Nelson were excellent in supporting roles in Capobianco's Don Giovanni in Don Quichotte, they are breakout stars. Mezzo-soprano Williams has magnificence vocally, but she brought so much alluring drama to the role. Nelson, with lots of padding and a shaved head is just towering as Sancho. Massenet writes him the longest soliloquies Nelson 's baritone is just transcendent in this role. Punch drunk or bouncing woman off his big stomach like a stooge would, Nelson is just full of pathos equal to a completely electrifying vocal performance.

The production design, metallic windmills and lattice background with star insets, Spanish balcony and fine-line costume designs is compact and effective in the intimate setting of the Warden Theater.

Runs through March 17.