World-renowned bass-baritone Ferruccio Furlanetto has described Jules Massenet's Don Quichotte as a “wonderful message of humanity”.  Mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili remarked that the opera's female character, Dulcinée, is looking for “real love, real passion”. Canadian Opera Company General Director Alexander Neef has called the 1910 opera a “parable of life”. All three ideas – humanity, romance, a parable – came together seamlessly under the direction of American Linda Brovsky on Friday evening as Don Quichotte made its Canadian Opera Company debut. Originally commissioned by the Opéra de Monte Carlo and first performed by legendary Russian bass baritone Feodor Chaliapin in the title role, Don Quichotte is based on Jacques Le Lorrain's play Le chevalier de la longue figure, which is, in turn, based on Cervantes' epic novel Don Quixote. Though the opera's enjoyed sporadic productions since its première, it's never enjoyed the popularity of other Massenet works like Werther and Manon, and was last staged at the Metropolitan Opera in 1926.

Nevertheless, the Canadian Opera Company introduced the work to Toronto audiences amidst a flurry of spring premières, including fine recent productions of Handel's Hercules and Donizetti's Roberto Devereux. The current presentation of Don Quichotte (from Seattle Opera) features whimsical designs, including oversized books, giant quills and inkwells, and a rich color scheme that evokes Cervantes' 17th century Spain. The “books”, used with great taste and economy, give a sense of the characters springing to life and, concurrently, offer a meta-dramatical commentary on the nature (and pitfalls) of an active imagination. Brovsky's smart, deceptively simple direction explores the imaginative world of the writer and the audience. Wedged between acts (the opera is five acts in total, though its running time is roughly two and a half hours), the audience is shown onscreen quotes from the novel resembling handwriting on parchment; it's as if we, in effect, are willing what happens onstage, with Quichotte's adventures become part-and-parcel of our imaginings. His longings, ambitions, even moral certitude, reflect our own higher (sometimes over-reaching) aims. There's something awfully ennobling about both the character and the way he's presented here, making the piece eminently watchable and, amidst a silly plot (older man retrieves necklace from scary robbers for a woman who later rejects him), deeply rewarding on creative as well as musical levels.

Smart blocking helps to underscore the marriage of theme and character. Dulcinée, for instance, enters the stage on top of a stack of “books” (as opposed to between the upright ones), climbing down on a makeshift set of wooden stairs. She is literally emerging from the material, but also controlling it, making it her own, as befits her independent spirit. Anita Rachvelishvili, a Georgian mezzo-soprano known for singing the role of Bizet's Carmen worldwide (including notable appearances at the Met and La Scala), here brings an element of the sultry gypsy to her performance, using flamenco dance elements as well as sensuous (if subtle) body language. Her Dulcinée is clearly grappling with being the most popular girl at the party who always goes home alone. Rachvelishvili provides a smart mix of sweet and cruel; her mannerisms shift as she flirts with various men before saying how bored she is with them, and her voice offers a gorgeously bold if equally sensitive reading of Massenet's Spanish-tinged score.

American baritone Quinn Kelsey, returning to the COC after his triumphant Rigoletto in 2011, brings a touching humanity to Sancho Panza, Quichotte's trusty sidekick. Mixing a gentle-giant spirit with expressive body language and a gorgeous rich tone, his chemistry with Furlanetto is especially affecting, particularly in the final scene, as Quichotte lays dying amidst a plain (and beautiful) backdrop of stars. The Italian bass-baritone is a solid actor and a deeply moving singer, his sensitive, moving portrayal a confident reflection of the four decades he's enjoyed on international opera stages. Furlanetto powerfully finds the humanity that lies at the heart of the character. His Quichotte is a fully-fleshed out human for whom we feel many things: pity, frustration, empathy, sadness, joy. This is a man whose naiveté is as touching as his chivalry. The bass-baritone brings a masterful knowingness to the role, offering a smartly modulated interpretation that is brought to especially good effect in the scene where Quichotte moves between singing a love song and fighting one of Dulcinée's suitors. The opera's final scene, as Quichotte lays dying, is shot through with tenderness, humanity, and a simple, arresting poetry that leaves a powerful impression long after the curtain comes down.

Canadian Opera Company Music Director Johannes Debus, conducting his first Don Quichotte, offering a deft, loving reading of Massenet's score, bridging its dreamy, atmospheric sections with the more Spanish sounds, in a seamless, dramatically compelling integration. The production is also enhanced by elegant visual elements including set designer Donald Eastman's rust-and-wine-tinged designs, costume designer Christina Poddubiuk's swingy, sumptuous dresses and fitted period breeches (Quichotte's metal leg-armor is a particularly nice touch), and lighting designer Connie Yun's atmospheric work. Flamenco dancer Anjelica Scannura brings a beautifully sensuous presence through her dance work (with choreography by Sara de Luis), giving us a robust visual sense of Dulcinée's longing, loneliness, sensuality, pride, and passion. Scannura's fiery dancing in the opera's second half, combined with Rachvelishvili's singing, de Luis' choreography, and Brovsky's smart staging, provides one of the most beguiling (and mature) looks at female longing to grace the Four Seasons Centre this season.

So Don Quichotte is about a man, but it's just as much about a woman – and the eternal push-pull attraction and tension between the sexes, to say nothing of the tension between fantasy and reality, boldness and cowardice, passion and practicality. Through its whimsical if smart design and touching performances, this production asks us to hold those tensions, and live in them, not as ideas, but as fully-fleshed out people, with thoughts, feelings, empathy, and love. Thus are we all Quichotte and Dulcinée – proud, passionate, and helplessly, hopelessly enamored.