The opera Don Quichotte – lively and light, rich in humour and the varied natures of its characters – is devoid of that sense of tragedy and doom that the public expect from a stage version of the classical Don Quichotte. Massenet looked at this story with entirely different eyes and wrote a work that is, essentially, in the style of old comic operas. Not by chance is the genre of the opera defined as a comédie-héroïque, where love is intertwined with love games, irony with tragic suffering, hopes with disappointment, and the scene of the protagonist’s death is laconic yet at the same time amazingly poetic. The opera is superbly orchestrated, the simplicity of its language shaded by the refinement of the instrumentation. Massenet’s decision to tackle the subject was to a large extent influenced by Fyodor Chaliapin, who had long held a dream of creating such an image on the operatic stage. Chaliapin sang at the opera’s premiere in Monte Carlo and in its first production in Russia at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.
Chaliapin’s work on the stage incarnation of Don Quichotte has been ranked alongside the singer’s other crowning glories in opera – Boris Godunov and Salieri. Chaliapin’s shadow long hung over Massenet’s work – where can you find a singer who can not only sing but who can create a suitable image as well? There were no newspapers, either in France or in Russia, whose critics were not delighted with the great singer’s final role. And almost all of them agreed on one matter – “Don Quixote is not merely the bearer highly idealistic intentions. He infects others with them… Chaliapin – Don Quichotte – a symbol.”