Making Opera is hard; making opera under these circumstances must be near impossible. Just a few weeks ago, San Diego Opera abruptly announced that it would be ceasing operations “with dignity” at the conclusion of this season. The announcement sent shockwaves throughout the American opera community and a local grassroots campaign quickly harnessed the power of social media to gather over 20,000 signatures on a petition opposing the closure. Today, there are more questions than answers on how and why this came about.

Anke Vondung (Dulcinea) and Ferruccio Furlanetto (Don Quixote) © Ken Howard
Anke Vondung (Dulcinea) and Ferruccio Furlanetto (Don Quixote)
© Ken Howard

But the show must go on, and on Saturday evening embattled General and Artistic Director Ian D. Campbell took the stage prior to curtain to the sound of fierce boos and shouts of “resign now” mixed with applause. In an altruistic plea for civility, Campbell requested respect for the artists who had worked on this production while thanking the many donors from orchestra to balcony for their support the past 49 seasons. It was a surreal and shocking unraveling of events from opening night just a few months ago. Indeed, making Opera is hard – yet San Diego Opera has often made it appear easy on stage. Saturday evening’s revival of Campbell’s staging of Massenet’s charming Don Quixote was no exception thanks to a solid production and exceptional performances.

The strength of this traditional production is its sincerity. While the aging Knight-errant is the source of scorn for those small-minded knaves in Dulcinea’s world, the nobility of his chivalry is commended in this production. Often glowingly lit, Quixote is messianic in a world that doesn't appreciate him and, rather than evoke pity from the audience, Keturah Stickann’s staging engenders understanding. Still, this is a colorful opera and there is plenty of atmosphere and fun. The fiery Flamenco dancing, choreographed by Kristina Cobarrubia, was a great addition. Sancho’s antics were endearing, not overly loutish, and the difficult-to-stage windmill scene earned intended laughs at its creative execution. All combined, this is a fine production, memorable and supremely thoughtful.

San Diego Opera's Don Quixote © Ken Howard
San Diego Opera's Don Quixote
© Ken Howard

One of the biggest draws at San Diego Opera for nearly 30 years has been the continuing presence of Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto. He is still an imposing dramatic and vocal force and his performances in San Diego are compelling draws, productions often tailored for the maestro. This production, premièred in 2009 with Furlanetto, may very well mark his final appearances in Southern California – this would be more than unfortunate. As the ancient knight Don Quixote, Furlanetto was charming and vocally resplendent. It was a magnetic performance, seamlessly entwined with the drama. Every gesture, every note, was part of Massenet’s hero.

Furlanetto portrayed him with a balky dignity that commanded respect. Whether fencing for Dulcinea, or tilting at windmills, Furlanetto was in complete command. His sonorous bass is rich, but capable of stunning tenderness, a color he used to moving effect. His death scene in the final act was supremely affecting.

Furlanetto’s supporting cast was quite fine. His sidekick, Sancho Panza was sung by Eduardo Chama, a portly bass with leathery tone and exceptional comedic timing. The evening’s showstopper was Sancho’s second act aria, “Comment peut-on penser du bien de ces coquines,” which he delivered with spite. In defense of his master, Chama was noble and his dedication to the end was moving. 

Quixote’s unreachable star, Dulcinea, was sung by German mezzo-soprano Anke Vondung. A statuesque and beautiful presence onstage, Vondung’s alluring voice was often ravishingly beautiful. Although lacking an imposing chest voice, she more than made up for it with beauty of line. As an aloof yet vulnerable character, her sudden sincerity in her fourth act aria, “Oui, je souffre votre tristesse, et j'ai vraiment chagrin à vous désemparer,” was one of the evening’s highlights.

Eduardo Chama (Sancho Panza) and Ferruccio Furlanetto (Don Quixote) © Ken Howard
Eduardo Chama (Sancho Panza) and Ferruccio Furlanetto (Don Quixote)
© Ken Howard

Dulcinea’s four suitors were led by Simeon Esper as the impetuous Juan. He inhabited the boorish character naturally. Tenor Joel Sorensen turned in another fine character performance as Rodriguez. Hervé Blanquart was a despicable chief bandit Ténébrun.

Under the direction of Karen Keltner, the San Diego Opera Orchestra played Massenet’s exotic score with verve. While the brass came across occasionally over-zealous, it was a mellifluous performance by the orchestra, one that played up the score’s Spanish flavor but also its French sensibilities. The San Diego Opera Chorus made an exemplary dramatic and vocal contribution as always.  

The thunderous ovation at the opera’s conclusion was one of the loudest I’d heard in recent memory. A visually moved Furlanetto sank to one knee to receive the deserved acclaim from an adoring public. The cavernous theater was vibrant with positive energy, almost antithetical to the manner in which the evening began. Why throw this away? 

San Diego Opera maintains its exceptional artistic quality and the public is impassioned in their support for this company. The words of Cervantes, projected on a scrim prior to the final act, weighed heavily on me: “…the greatest madness a man can commit in this life is to let himself die, just like that, without anybody killing him or any other hands ending his life except those of melancholy.” Surely the irony was not lost on the audience. The powers that be would do well to heed Sancho’s words. After all, there is far more “dignity” in tilting at windmills.