Tilting at Windmills:  Massenet's 'Don Quichotte' Massenet's Don Quichotte is one of several operas based on Miguel Cervantes' 17th-century novel, in which the self-proclaimed knight-errant travels the world righting wrongs.

Tilting at Windmills:  Massenet's 'Don Quichotte'

From La Monnaie Theatre, Brussels

Hear An Introduction To The Opera

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/131244769/131243935" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Don Quixote (Jose Van Dam) describes himself as a knight-errant who wanders the world righting wrongs, comforting mourners and aiding the oppressed. Johan Jacobs hide caption

toggle caption
Johan Jacobs

Don Quixote (Jose Van Dam) describes himself as a knight-errant who wanders the world righting wrongs, comforting mourners and aiding the oppressed.

Johan Jacobs

The Hit Single

In the opera's final scene, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (bass Jose Van Dam and baritone Werner Van Mechelen) are together in mountains. Quixote says he's reached the end. With the voice of Dulcinea (mezzo-soprano Silvia Tro Santafé) in his ears, Quixote dies in Sancho's arms.

The Death of Don Quixote

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/131244769/131243988" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

The B Side

In Act Four, Dulcinea (Silvia Tro Santafé) rejects all four of her suitors -- none of them give her the spark of love she craves. Left alone, she sings "Lorsque le temps d’amour a fui" -- "When the Time of Love Has Flown" -- fearing she's lost her chance at true romance.

"When the Time of Love Has Flown"

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/131244769/131243990" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Great literature has always been a rich source of inspiration for composers, though the process has taken longer in some cases than others -- and the results have often been mixed, at best.

There's Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, for example. It didn't turn up in the opera house until 200 years or so after it was written, and another century went by before Gounod wrote the first operatic version of the tragedy that's still around today.

On the other side of the coin there's Don Quixote, by Manuel de Cervantes, which started showing up in music almost immediately, at least by historical standards.

Regarded by many as the first true novel ever written, Don Quixote was published in two parts early in the 1600s. The first opera based on the book turned up later that same century, along with some incidental music by Henry Purcell, to accompany a dramatic version of the story. Later there were more operas, several ballets and a widely-played tone poem by Richard Strauss.

Still, when it comes to music, Cervantes does share something with Shakespeare: As with Shakespeare's plays, successful operas based on Don Quixote have been few and far between. The first one, written in 1690, was by a composer named Johann Förtsch -- whose name isn't exactly a household word. Others, also obscure, were written by Giovanni Paisiello and Saverio Mercadante. But there was one composer, Jules Massenet, for whom Don Quixote proved fertile ground.

Massenet's Don Quichotte may stand a rung or two below his better known operas, such as Manon and Werther, yet there is plenty to recommend it. Like Verdi's Shakespeare-based Falstaff, Massenet's opera seems rooted more in its iconic title character than in any single work of literature. And the two operas have more than that in common. Both were written late in their composers' lives and both feature lead characters whose stories find them ridiculed more than often than admired. But Verdi and Massenet, like Shakespeare and Cervantes, tinged the seeming buffoonery of those characters with a touching, world-weary wisdom -- a resigned insight that lets them teach the younger people around them a few sad, but vital lessons.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a new production of Massenet's Don Quichotte from one of Europe's leading theaters, La Monnaie in Brussels. The stars include Belgian bass Jose Van Dam in the title role, with mezzo-soprano Silvia Tro Santafé as Dulcinea and baritone Werner Van Mechelen as Sancho Panza.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.