In a season when all the buzz was about Shostakovich’s The Nose, and all the banners and billboards were advertising Carmen and La traviata, another rarity mounted by Opera Australia rather slipped under the radar. Massenet’s “heroic comedy” Don Quichotte is by no stretch of the imagination a repertory standard – this run marked its Sydney première – but it is a grateful vehicle for a bass with decent acting chops. In this production, the title role was played by the seasoned star Ferruccio Furlanetto. Sadly, he was indisposed on opening night, but returned for the second performance, fortuitously the one under review.

Carving a workable drama out of Cervantes’ Don Quixote is no easy task. Massenet’s librettist, Henri Cain, worked from a play adapted from the beloved novel, and the opera plot centres on Quixote’s quest to retrieve jewels stolen by brigands and thus win the hand of Dulcinée. The latter is only a figure of Quixote’s imagination in the original, representing ideal womanhood and virtue, but here she is turned into what the New Grove Dictionary of Opera calls “a capricious small-town tart”. Accompanied everywhere by four forgettable suitors, she straddles the line between playing up to the knight errant’s delusions and being honestly charmed by him. On his successful return, she gently but firmly rejects his marriage proposal and, broken-hearted, he dies.

Another major challenge is how to capture the humour of the original, which rides on the difference between the mad knight’s flights of fancy and the sober realities he misreads as part of his dreams. The most successful instance of this was in the famous windmill-tilting scene in Act 2. Initially, two glowing red specks were all that could be seen in the gloom, which Quichotte assumed were giants. As the light gradually came up, the model windmills became visible, while more images were projected onto the front scrim, a visual representation of the confusing whirl of thoughts in Quichotte’s mind. Furlanetto charged off stage on his model horse, and the act ended with the sight of his dummy double caught on the rotating blade.

The production team seemed to have expended most of their creative energies on this act, as the rest of the staging was rather drab and often poorly lit. The opera has inherent problems with its pacing and continuity, and sadly the lacklustre direction failed to remedy them. Even the opening scene of revelry felt formulaic, and the static, tableau-like handling of the chorus compared unfavourably to the lively business they were given in Moshinsky’s Traviata. The start of Act 4, a bridging scene for Dulcinée and her hangers-on, was a particular low point, rife with stale orientalisms and paper-thin characters.

In a concession to the the dramatic inadequacies of the plot, quotations from the novel were projected whenever the curtain was down – and it was down a lot. The set-up of the windmill scene alone took nearly a quarter of an hour, during which the orchestra played a suite from Massenet’s ballet Le Cid. Presumably the shared Spanish setting was seen to justify the importation, and indeed both opera and ballet excerpts drew heavily on the Hispanicisms of Carmen (the second entr’acte, “L’Andalouse”, is scandalously similar to the famous “Habanera”).

As Quichotte, Furlanetto stressed dignity over comedy, which is certainly the right line to take, particularly in this opera, with its references to the title character’s saintliness (his selfless almsgiving at the start), charisma (the robbers all convert, even though they have him in their power) and martyrdom (a jealous rival tries to insist he is a “madman posing as a martyr”). There was gentle whimsy and eccentricity in his performance too, and his comical attempts at serenades and poetry got some chuckles. While there were no obvious problems vocally, he was perhaps a little less compelling than in Winterreise last year.

Warwick Fyfe as Sancho was a delightful foil to the knight from La Mancha: loquacious, credulous, prone to occasional outbursts in a typical comic-servant vein and ultimately revealed to be deeply attached to his exasperating master. Their scenes together were the highpoints of the evening, especially Fyfe’s delivery of the comic diatribe against women “Comment peut-on penser du bien’. Elena Maximova was a rich-voiced Dulcinée, a character she tilted more towards sincerity than frivolity. Her quartet of suitors, Graeme Macfarlane, John Longmuir and moustache-wearing Jane Ede and Anna Dowsley sang well, but were always battling their dramatic irrelevance. Guillaume Tourniaire sculpted the orchestral sound with his usual care and diligence, drawing nice dynamic shadings from the players. If only the dramaturgy had been as convincing as the musical side, there would have been little to complain about.