As the legend goes, a noble cavalier loses his battle with giant windmills. But the Academy of Vocal Arts wins big with their latest production, Jules Massenet’s melodic Don Quichotte.

Burak Bilgili and Zachary Nelson © Paul Sirochman
Burak Bilgili and Zachary Nelson
© Paul Sirochman

It was a first-rate evening of opera at the Helen Corning Warden Theater in Philadelphia, the home of the City of Brotherly Love’s world-renowned opera training academy that, year in and year out, prepares its alumni to succeed at the world’s greatest opera houses.

Massenet’s retelling of the Don Quixote legend in five acts, assisted by librettist Henri Caïn, relates only indirectly to Cervantes’ masterpiece. In this sentimentalized version, the beleaguered knight’s beloved Dulcinea is no simple farm girl but Dulcinée, a local beauty and determined flirt. Don Quichotte does encapsulate several of the tale’s signature adventures – the declaration of the chevalier’s love for Dulcinée, his making foes of windmills, and being spurned and, in this version, mocked by his lady love. But mostly, it is a gentle, traditional opera that is readily appreciated and enjoyed.

It is believed that Massenet had fallen for a much younger woman at the time he wrote this opera, which premièred in Monte Carlo in 1910. The fact that the composer had resigned himself to suffering in love unrequited is evident throughout the work – in this version, one never really expects Don Quichotte to win the girl or to win much of anything; the character is chronically befuddled. However, the opera itself is a winner. And in the hands of the talented musicians and artists at the Academy of Vocal Arts, the music soared, and the characters delighted, charmed, revolted, and frightened operagoers, alternately.

The synergy of story and music marking this production rests chiefly in the partnership between stage and artistic director Tito Capobianco, and music director and conductor Chrisofer Macatsoris. Like hand in glove, these two veteran professionals worked in tandem to pull off the most vibrant and polished production I’ve seen from this company in that particular venue. It is a small theater, and space for all is limited – performers, musicians, and audience members. The framework for the set was nothing more than glorified scaffolding, yet when combined with lighting and special effects like windmills that actually churned, the total dramatic impact was transformative and, ultimately, became a grand backdrop for a sweeping tale set in 17th-century Spain.

To portray the role of Don Quichotte, they invited back AVA alumnus Burak Bilgili, a Turkish bass who has performed in many of the world’s premier houses since finishing the program in 2004. He was ideally cast as the world’s most addled tragicomic hero. His voice was large and resonant and never faltered. He made the most of his character make-up to hilarious effect, pulling at his white locks until they stuck straight up from his head throughout the show. Much is expected of the bass who sings this role, and Bilgili delivered.

Mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Williams sang and acted the sultry Dulcinée to perfection. Having seen her in several principal roles, she has a tremendous amount of range as an artist. But the most amazing thing about Williams, besides the fact that she can sing virtually any role, is her physicality. She knows how to use her body as an instrument as well as she uses her voice, and she has an effortless grace whenever she is on stage that makes her a pleasure to watch.

Yet, best-of-show honors must go to baritone Zachary Nelson who played the knight’s rotund sidekick Sancho. Now in his fourth and final year as a resident artist, Nelson mined every bit of comic timing out of the role. From the moment he appeared onstage astride his trusty donkey, Nelson sang expressively and inhabited the role (and the extra padding he inherited with his costume). His performance was a very happy marriage of artist with breakout role that demonstrated his ability to command a stage, in character. He deserved his hearty bravos at curtain call and a few more, for good measure.

This review includes a special nod to all the other resident artists who comprised the ensemble, portraying admirers, bandits, partygoers, and peasants. The crowd scenes were well directed, well acted, and well sung, and must be credited for adding to the show’s vitality and success.

Despite the small space, the artists were accompanied by nearly forty accomplished musicians. Surprisingly, the singers were never overwhelmed or forced to shout-sing over the orchestra to be heard. Besides supporting the singers, Maestro Macatsoris also conducted a glorious interlude to start the fifth and final act, leaving no doubt that Massenet was a gifted melodist.

More loved than appreciated, Massenet may not be at the top of everyone’s list of greatest operatic composers. But none can dispute that his operas constituted the best of his work. And his Don Quichotte, currently being presented (double-cast) by Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, is wholly worthy of any devout operagoer’s love and sincere appreciation.