Although it is sometimes frowned upon to walk the “fine line” between reviewing something and promoting or marketing it, I am going to begin this review by saying that there are two remaining performances for this production, and if you can possibly attend one of them, we definitely recommend it (see IslandCityOpera.org for info). It’s a wonderful opportunity to see and hear this rarely-performed (but beautiful) opera by Jules Massenet, presented in a charming, intimate and very moving way by a locally-based opera company that does highly creative work with its very limited resources and highly professional cast (most of the soloists very active with SF Opera and other companies). And another benefit to this particular production is an informative pre-performance talk (about Massanet, his personal life, and this opera) given by composer and music critic Jeff Dunn one hour before “curtain time”.
The character of Don Quixote (or Don Quichotte in French) is universally beloved, of course, but this opera is unusual in that it isn’t based on the famous novel, but sets the familiar character in new situations that reflect his inner qualities and values to a modern-day live audience. The music of the opera is also unusual, in that Massenet departed from the standard tradition of his day where the big romantic roles and soaring melodies went to sopranos and tenors – the solo roles here are equally soaring and beautiful, but all in the lower registers of the human voice and performed by a mezzo soprano and baritones/bass-baritones. This may (sadly) explain why the opera never gained a large audience or a place in the standard repertoire, so major thanks to Island City Opera and to other opera companies that have (financially) dared to produce this magical piece.
And equal thanks to the supremely talented Igor Vieira, who championed the idea to the ICO founders and finally got to fulfill his childhood dream in this production, acting as both a very creative stage director, set designer and opera star (singing the role of Sancho). And acting, in his case, is the right word – this young singer has a riveting, beautifully expressive voice, charismatic stage presence, and tremendous gift for comic acting, with facial expressions that match his wide range of vocal colors.
Buffy Baggott did a lovely, radiant job singing the role of Dulcinee and was extremely impressive in the sheer number of different vocal hues and dynamics she could command, seemingly effortlessly, throughout the five acts.
But William Pickersgill as Don Quixote was the one who stole our hearts and emotions. He not only looked the part, he and his voice seemed to merge with the character, and I personally hope I never forget the complete expression of noble humanity, love and forgiveness on his face when he knelt on stage facing the audience, with his back to Dulcinee, during Act 4. That expression has stayed with me in the days since the performance, as he wordlessly conveyed a powerful, timeless message that so many of us need to hear in our country and our world today.
The other cast members fulfilled their vocal roles with aplomb and obviously enjoyed being part of this fun production and highly creative staging, with good use of video backdrops. Lighting changes were very simple yet highly effective and evocative. Of the chorus, new member Christabel Nunoo was charismatic and fully engaged (face, eyes, mouth, body language) in every minute of every chorus scene, so impossible not to watch, without being a distraction.
The orchestra quality and ensemble was intermittent – at first, excellent all around, but it tended to weaken in intonation and ensemble as the opera progressed despite the solid instrumentalists participating. Probably some budgetary restrictions limited the amount of rehearsal time both as an orchestral ensemble and with the singers - and on a 5-act opera, where the music is a very important part of the whole, some patron donations perhaps need to be collected specifically for the allowance of more rehearsal sessions in future productions.
Having said that, there were some wonderful woodwind passages during the more “youthful” songs, the horns were reliably in tune and consistently on point in all entrances, the percussionist did some lovely soft timpani rolls and intriguingly rapid work with wood blocks; and cellist Gabriel Beistline performed his beautiful cello solo in Act 5 with gorgeous, expression-filled tone.
One might think “five acts?!” but the time went very swiftly and did not drag at all. Quality singing, beautiful music, creative production, and a powerful message: these all combine to create an experience of opera at its finest, regardless of small-town, minimal budget or in a major city production. William Pickersgill’s total embodiment of Don Quixote, Buffy Baggott’s confident variety of vocal hues and dynamics, and Igor Vieira’s singing with absolutely no barrier between his soul, his heart and his voice…..just pure, total release of it all.
As he sang to a dying Don Quixote, “May your heart soar where all dreams become reality”. Kudos to Island City Opera for acting on Mr Vieira’s dream, and making it a reality for us all to share.
By Donna Stoering
For LFL Reviews March 2017