By Marc Shulgold
CENTRAL CITY – Like Beaumarchais’ comedies featuring the irrepressible Figaro, Cervantes’ beloved novel Don Quixote has inspired numerous works in different genres. For example, there’s the rarely seen opera by Massenet and the never-seen one by Wilhelm Kienzl (who?). Balletomanes have long flocked to Don Quixote (Kitri’s Wedding), in which the knight and his sidekick make only cameo appearances. And, of course, there’s Man of La Mancha, with its anthem of hope that has become a show-closing cliché for lounge singers.
It’s not surprising that Colorado’s Central City Opera presented Man of La Mancha as part of its slim summer season in this tiny mountain town, 40 miles west of Denver. In recent years, as a way to lure theatergoers less inclined to embrace opera, the company has dipped into the Broadway canon, presenting Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, and Showboat. And director Paul Curran’s staging of La Mancha (with book by Dale Wasserman, music by Mitch Leigh, and lyrics by Joe Darion) proved a rewarding experience for those who made the uphill trek from Denver. Who among us can remain dry-eyed during the umpteenth reprise of “The Impossible Dream”?
But wait, Don Q fans – there’s more! And here’s where things get really interesting.
This season, the company has tossed in yet another Cervantes tale, the thoroughly goofy – and thoroughly neglected – 60-minute opera Don Quixote and the Duchess (aka Quichotte chez la Duchesse) by the French Baroque composer Joseph Bodin de Boismortier. Best of all, for anyone flexible enough to put one foot in opera and the other in the Broadway milieu, the company presented both works in a back-to-back matinee on Aug. 1.
As it turned out, this was a delightful double dose of the Dons.
For opera lovers who seek obscure works, the chance to catch a staged Don Quixote and the Duchess was too good to pass up. What made this trifle even more rewarding were two enticing elements: the unusual venue (the intimate Lanny and Sharon Martin Foundry Rehearsal Center, a stone’s throw from the Opera House) and the youthful cast (all members of the company’s Apprentice and Studio Artists program). Sung in Thomas Getty’s witty English translation and neatly accompanied by Christopher Zemliauskas’ tiny instrumental contingent in the corner, this production bubbled with proper degrees of slapstick fun and uninhibited energy. Not to mention some fine singing.
You really don’t want to know the absurd plot, which begins in the unseen palace of an unseen Duchess and ends in the courts of Japan. Along the way, we meet a gray-bearded Merlin (really the disguised Duke) plus an assortment of choristers garbed in kimonos, servant aprons, and tuxes or, most amusingly, their underwear. We also see (or, at least, imagine) the Don and Sancho turned into a bear and monkey.
The music is charming if unmemorable, offering several instrumental episodes that provide opportunities for dancing couples.
Kyle Lang nimbly directed his cast around the tiny performing space, often sending them out into the center aisle for some nicely turned choreography. The ever-willing singers were also asked to pull and push Nathan E. Thompson’s large painted set pieces into and out of view.
Did it look like a low-budget high school production? Of course. Did it sound like one? Hardly. These are hand-picked singers who are spending the CCO season in a nationally recognized training program, established years ago by the respected pedagogue John Moriarty. They are performers with a bright theatrical future.
No surprise, then, that the cruel demands of Altisidore proved a vocal triumph for Maya Kherani, who easily traversed her treacherous passages as a servant girl or as the bewigged Queen of Japan. Not only did she seem to enjoy those zillions of notes, but Kherani also reveled in her zany acting assignments, never once stooping to mugging or shtick.
Low-ranging roles were handled with assurance by Joshua Arky (Merlin) and Andy Berry (Montesinos). There was exemplary singing and scurrying about by the cast, all of whom appeared to be loving every minute.
The hour break allowed for some lunch, while giving the Apprentice singers enough time to catch their breath and suit up for Man of La Mancha.
With my salad consumed, I strolled down to the Opera House for more singing Don.
Unlike the Boismortier, this tale has a dark side, highlighted by a riveting rape scene that has drawn letters of complaints from dismayed patrons (despite the fact that past CCO seasons have included Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, which begins with a rape and double murder, and Britten’s Rape of Lucretia.)
Yes, this is grown-up stuff – the company cautiously marketed it with a PG-13 rating – but it remains a powerful and, in the end, truly uplifting theatrical experience. Paul Curran, the imaginative director at numerous Central City productions, here guided his cast capably on the set-less stage, capturing the play-within-a-play spontaneity of Wasserman’s storyline, while drawing out superb acting from the superb singers.
Man of La Mancha is clearly intended as a star vehicle for the title character (who also portrays the imprisoned Cervantes), and here Central City Opera was fortunate to bring back the marvelous Robert Orth, an always-welcome guest to the Opera House stage. In both of his roles, Orth brought humanity and depth to his characterizations and an effortlessly warm baritone to all those wonderful hit songs.
The star’s double duty may carry the show, but let’s not ignore the other two central figures in this musical: Aldonza and Sancho Panza. Lucy Schaufer was impossible to ignore as a tough, cynical Aldonza, easily dominating her pivotal scenes, and revealing a mezzo-soprano that showed equal degrees of force and focus. (Incidentally, we remember Schaufer’s wonderful Elsa and Orth’s delightful Max in CCO’s Sound of Music last season.) Keith Jameson was superb as Sancho, showing authority in his role’s subtly shifting sympathies as well as in some finely shaded singing. The muscular Adelmo Guidarelli emerged as a likable Inn-keeper.
Many of those Apprentice and Studio trainees were given important duties in this La Mancha, among them, Berry, showing first-rate singing and a marvelous speaking voice as Carrasco, and Kuhn, impressive as the Padre.
Marc Shulgold served for 12 years at the Los Angeles Times with Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic Martin Bernheimer, and more recently, for 22 years as Music and Dance Writer at the Rocky Mountain News. He is currently a teacher, program annotator, freelance writer and lecturer in Denver.