Fireworks and a fiesta of Spanish sunshine injected heat into the opening night of the 68th season of Wexford Festival Opera. Don Quichotte falls into the category of “rarity” these days, which is a great shame because Massenet’s distillation of Cervantes’ lengthy novel into five brief acts bursts with terrific music. Composed towards the end of his life as a vehicle for the great Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin, it is a tender reflection on advancing age. Indeed, the last time I saw it, the Don was portrayed as Massenet himself, a crusty conservative fighting the advances of “new music”.

Tilting at windmills
© Clive Barda

No such conceptualising in Rodula Gaitanou’s production. The young Greek director has created a wonderful, simple staging, aided by takis’ beautiful designs and Simon Corder’s elegant lighting. The set features mobile wooden platforms which turn from town square into bandits’ hideout and, most effectively, into the windmills which Don Quichotte mistakes for giants. Gaitanou tells the tale straight, with a little updating; the knight errant’s horse, Rosinante, is replaced by a bicycle, while his sidekick, Sancho Panza, rides a moped. The opening festival is represented by a circus, with Dulcinée the star attraction.

Aigul Akhmetshina (Dulcinée)
© Clive Barda

And Aigul Akhmetshina is very much the star attraction in the cast. Her outstanding success as Carmen at the Royal Opera last summer was evident in the way in which she portrayed the sultry señorita with whom the Don is besotted. Akhmetshina clearly relishes the dance content – perfect flamenco wrists – and her every move crackles with electricity. Her vibrant mezzo is well-suited to the role too, earthy in the guitar-accompanied “Ne pensons qu'au plaisir d'aimer”, but gorgeously shaped in Dulcinée’s apology after she laughingly rejects Quichotte’s proposal of marriage.

Aigul Akhmetshina (Dulcinée) and Goderdzi Janelidze (Don Quichotte)
© Clive Barda

Goderdzi Janelidze made a fine impression in the title role. The Georgian has a silky bass, weaving long legato lines around Don Quichotte’s serenade, a sighing melody which recurs in the entr’acte after the tilting at windmills episode. There were moments of insecure intonation and his acting is a little wooden, but he’s a young artist, learning his craft, and shows great promise. Ólafur Sigurdarson was a well-rounded Sancho Panza, his robust baritone excellent at the comedy routines but his finest moment came when he vehemently upbraids the crowd for mocking Don Quichotte after Dulcinée’s rejection.

Ólafur Sigurdarson (Sancho Panza), Goderdzi Janelidze (Don Quichotte), Aigul Akhmetshina (Dulcinée)
© Clive Barda

Among the other roles, Gavan Ring stood as Juan (one of Dulcinée’s many suitors) and Henry Grant Kerswell, whose fruity French diction as the bandit leader was spat out with filthy glee. The Wexford Chorus sang lustily and the orchestra, under Timothy Myers’ spirited direction, gave a scintillating account of Massenet’s masterly score. There really isn’t a redundant note in the entire opera, which zings past in under two hours. Solos were well played, especially the poignant cello in the prelude to the Don’s deathbed scene. Kudos to Gaitanou for allowing both entr’actes to be performed with the curtain down – not every overture or intermezzo needs to be cluttered with stage action. Her production is a delight and I could have happily watched it all over again as soon as the curtain fell.