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Piero Faggioni’s production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte has been tooling around Europe for years. A lot of years. Eighteen, in fact, which must be some kind of record for a touring opera production. About halfway through its life span, Faggioni—who designed Quichotte’s sets, costumes, and lights in addition to directing—bought the production, following it from city to city as a sort of resident control freak.

This Italian staging of a French opera of a Spanish novel just made its American debut in a co-production with Washington Opera, and every moment of the score has been choreographed down to the eyeballs. Faggioni makes a big deal about theatrical values in a current Washington Opera magazine interview—how the creation of fully fleshed characters is central to his work in opera, how the audience has to feel a vital human connection to the action onstage, how a production must wring every ounce of drama from the music. Sounds great. But you’ll have to search awfully hard among the big presentational flourishes and stand-and-belt posturing to find much that’s recognizably human in his staging.

Choristers and supernumeraries cram the sloping sides of Faggioni’s set—a rough-hewn Spanish plaza that rises from mounds of coal—and, like some onstage SRO audience, watch Quichotte (aka Don Quixote) and Sancho slog through their broadly gestural paces. What little of the stage is left unencumbered by the huge ensemble is encumbered by wagons of fakey scenery and a pair of endearingly clunky but ultimately tiresome mechanical horses. The proscenium-filling scrim never moves. Lights shift and singers execute their patterns of movement with a daunting precision. Stage pictures tell the story very clearly and prettily. But if Faggioni’s aim (to quote his interview) is “to reach the soul of the audience,” then his anal-retentive staging and deliberate distancing effects seem perversely designed to fail.

What could render style issues irrelevant is an epoch-making performance in the title role. Ruggero Raimondi makes a respectable stab at it, but, given that he’s performed in every incarnation of this production since it premiered, in 1982, his portrayal is surprisingly short on detail or animating fire. Raimondi—a popular and well-recorded bass approaching the end of a long career—has often been praised for the restraint of his acting. But his Washington performance as Quichotte confirms suspicions that his restraint is less a matter of subtle interpretive genius than a lack of dramatic imagination.

As always, Raimondi is an elegant presence onstage, and his performance is refreshingly free of histrionics: The Don’s exaggerated attempts at chivalric gesture and his senile mumblings to people who aren’t there emerge as convincing character traits. But Quichotte’s lost, faraway glance, so movingly established in the first few scenes, becomes the substance of the interpretation rather than a springboard for a deeper exploration of character. Similarly, Raimondi’s voice—as ever, a darkly handsome instrument capable of baritonal litheness at the expense of rolling low notes—paints emotions in monochrome, when a richer palette

is required.

Fyodor Chaliapin was a different story. The great Russian bass, widely considered the greatest singing actor on the early-20th-century operatic stage, combined a voice of daunting power and sepulchral darkness with astonishing dramatic instincts. It was for Chaliapin that Massenet wrote Don Quichotte, and his appearances in the opera were the stuff of legend. And those performances were probably the sole reason this tepid late-career work has had any cachet at all.

Compared with other adaptations of the Cervantes novel, Don Quichotte has to be the most plot-light and fluff-heavy. A single chapter of Cervantes has more incident; a single scene of Man of La Mancha has more hummable tunes; a single page of Strauss’ tone-poem has more wit than the whole of Quichotte. And even when set against Massenet’s own work, it’s pretty weak tea. Quichotte lives in the same swoony, pastel-colored world as Manon and Werther but lacks their coherence and generosity of melody. Alternately, Le Cid’s chivalric swagger finds no place in Quichotte, even as an ironic presence. (The munchkin army Faggioni sets swirling through the Don’s mind in the prologue, tellingly conceived but pretty damn silly in execution, is as apt a metaphor as any for the gulf between Massenet’s aspirations and his abilities here.)

The title role is, at best, sketched in only two dimensions; the other characters are lucky to make it off the page with one. Sancho is written a lot narrower than the big ol’ padded butt that Alain Vernhes hauls around the Opera House stage, and although this Faggioni veteran sings his music with a solid, rounded bass, he’s a big face-actor from the word “go.” (Maybe mugging is the only way to sell Sancho’s “comic” centerpiece—an aria about how conniving and shrewish women are. Har, har, har.) Denyce Graves—suffering further wear and tear on her lustrous voice—has the misfortune to play the one woman in the piece, the paint-by-numbers rendering of Dulcinée as yet another hooker with a heart of gold. Wearing a costume that does the impossible by making her look ridiculous and plain, the gorgeous mezzo looks as if she’s on autopilot most of the time, but she rallies for a touching final confrontation with Quichotte. And bass Philip Skinner does distinguished work as the Bandit Chief. The rest of the roles are sung competently but are so underwritten that it matters very little.

A great deal of the score is taken up with orchestral interludes, dance music, and choruses of banditos, lovesick swains, and merry villagers. The Washington Opera Chorus acquits itself with its accustomed professionalism, and the orchestra sounds suitably atmospheric playing Massenet’s butter-cream scoring. Conductor Alain Guingal is adept at bringing out the score’s flirtations with impressionism—if only there were more of them!—but he takes an already loosely structured, slow-moving work and caresses it into a near coma. Which is the last thing this particular production needs.

Taken as lightweight entertainment, there’s nothing wrong with Faggioni’s bag-o’-tricks approach to Massenet: With some neat sleight of hand, he’s turned an innocuous little bonbon into a whole dessert cart. (No doubt it all went down very smoothly for opening-night patrons who dropped more than $600 a seat to be close to the action.) But the revelatory musical drama Faggioni describes in his interview it most certainly is not. No, to see what superb acting and directing can do to transform repertory opera, you’ll have to travel north. The Met—not typically a bastion of theatrical truths—is currently offering Jürgen Flimm’s knockout update of Fidelio with the soulful Karita Mattila in the title role, as well as Stephen Lawless’ smart, long-needed overhaul of the Zeffirelli Don Giovanni with a well-nigh perfect cast headed by one of our own era’s great singing actors, Bryn Terfel. No scrims, no casts of thousands, no prosthetic asses—just life translated to the stage with intelligence and simplicity. Massenet was certainly no Beethoven, no Mozart. But imagine how much more compelling this Don Quichotte could be if Faggioni just loosened up and let some life into his art. CP