Jules Massenet: Don Quichotte (1910)

Opera en cinq actes. Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes.

PLOT: Spain, circa 1600. Don Quichotte falls for the beautiful Dulcinee, who is much sought after. She has him go on a quest to retrieve her pearl neckless stolen by a bandit. He does, she gives him the brush off, and he eventually ends up contemplating the meaning of life.



ACT 1: A square in front of Dulcinee’s house. (34 minutes)

0: The opera begins immediately with a long Spanish-inspired choral-dance number with one very striking tune that is repeated as a kind of refrain at certain points **. Dulcinee, the town belle, is serenaded by four admirers (two tenors and two en transvesti sopranos).

6: Dulcinee’s philosophical air about being admired and how fleeting it is **.

15: The two admirers (Juan and Pedro) engage in a dialogue that is little more than an excuse to fill time before the arrival of Don Quichotte on horseback with Sancho . Their dialogue is more interesting for what they are saying than it is musically, but the Don gets a brief noble air *. Large sections of the dialogues between the two men take place with minimal and sometimes no orchestral accompaniment.

19: Don Quichotte’s serenade to Dulcinee * is interrupted by Juan who challenges him to a duel. The serenade has a serene and springy accompaniment. The duet is similar to the entrance music for Don Quichotte and Sancho.

23: Dulcinee returns * and she and Quichotte embark on a brief and separate duet. She also stops the men from continuing their fight.

27: Dulcinee’s response to Quichotte has a mild tune as she sends him on a mission to retrieve a pearl necklace stolen from her by the Bandido Tenebrun *. The scene ends with an off-stage rehash of the opening choral tune. This is effective in its own mild way.

32: Quichotte gives his last bit *, Dulcinee bids adieu, good night.

ACT 2: Countryside, windmills. (14 minutes)

0, 7: A nice bit of orchestral preluding *, oddly Debussy-ish if not for the solo flute and clarinets which lend it a countryside air. Quichotte engages in composing a rather ornery love poem while he and Sancho ride along. Sancho ends up taking up his own little misogynistic bit * which ends up being a set piece aria with an anti-Wagnerian orchestral conclusion.

11: Quichotte sees the windmills and thinks they are giants, he attacks them and, well we all know what happens next **. Sancho pleads with his master not to do this but complies.

ACT 3: The mountains. (21 minutes)

0: Another nature prelude from the orchestra (this time properly an interlude) * with a nice oboe solo. Then everything goes Parsifal for a brief moment, then ornery, much of this continues into the Quichotte-Sancho dialogue which makes up the next seven minutes or so.

9: The night watch *: Quichotte sleeps standing up (like a knight). Sancho get more shut eye, but really neither gets that much before the bandits capture the old man and disrobe him. All of this is followed by the spectacle  of being surrounded by some very French sounding Spanish bandits (soloists set to a patch of parlando although the chorus sings). Somehow Sancho has escaped and so Quichotte is set to torture by the bandits.

13: Quichotte’s prayer ***, hushed, holy, not all that tuneful, but touching with the organ background. It melts the hearts of the bandits surely. They ask him what he wants and he goes about the scenic rout of doing so but it is effective and leads to an orchestral crescendo during which the bandits hand over Dulcinee’s pearl neckless to him. Sancho comes back and the bandits ask Quichotte for his blessing. This is the best scene in the opera so far.

ACT 4: The garden of Dulcinee’s house. (32 minutes)

4, 13: In contrast to the solemnity of the previous act we go back to a more sedate (almost snake-charmer) variant of the first act which is where interest wanes temporarily. Dulcinee is melancholy, but if it weren’t so sad, the number would lower the opera into the realm of operetta or musical theatre. There are outbursts of fiery Spanish dance music and the guitar solo provides for atmosphere but unless it is pulled off correctly, this scene can kill the show. A toast follows which is only slightly better as they go off for supper. Thankfully Sancho and Quichotte return and we get back into opera territory  but it is still rather lite *.

17, 19, 21, 26, 30: Dulcinee returns with her guests to a worthwhile tune * but as events transpire towards Quichotte’s big reveal of the neckless things finally start to warm up. Quichotte requests Dulcinee’s hand in marriage **, she refuses, not out of ingratitude but because of who and what she is. She can never marry, anyone, but she is sympathetic to Quichotte’s feelings at being turned down **. Them embark on a relatively passionate but short duet *. The guests return and she departs, the guest gear at the old man but Sancho defends his master ***. This eventually takes on a very grand orchestration (possibly the best in the piece).

ACT 5: A mountain pass. (15 minutes)

0: Yet another prelude, this time dominancy goes to the cello **, very effective.

5: Sancho knows that the Don is dying, all of this is very effecting **. Look out for Sancho’s opening and then Quichotte’s first words where the orchestra takes on a profound role.

10: The death scene ***: Quichotte reminds Sancho that he promised him an island, now he can only give him an island of dreams. Dulcinee is heard in the distance singing calling for Quichotte to follow her into the afterlife. He dies, Sancho is left alone to mourn somewhat awkwardly. Curtain.


Don Quichotte is a classic, but it is very much a mix of the profoundly beautiful, the rushed, and unfortunately the dull. There are hundreds of great musical ideas in it, but much of the time it is very gentle, almost but never quite pallid, and a little boring. Dulcinee can be an obnoxious princess or ingenious depending on how she is portrayed. How is her wealth sustained and is it for her wealth or her beauty that men want her? Don Quichotte himself, as well as Sancho, however, are excellently characterized by Massenet although the finale is slight, just slight, rushed. The four suitors are okay but I personally feel that Massenet gives them too much to do. Although it works in the first act, in act four Massenet’s attempt at providing Spanish colour starts to dangerously border into the realm of light/comic musical theatre and operetta. The music loses power for some reason and it is only with the return of Quichotte that we return to the world of opera, after nearly a quarter of an hour(!). The end scene with Quichotte and Dolcinee and later Sancho’s defence of Quichotte do bring the opera back up, as does the fifth act, but the beginning of act four must be counted as a problem. The usage of spoken dialogue for the bandits is also rather interesting, it seems to evoke Carmen or something. Ultimately an A-. don20quichotte20-20affiche

2 responses to “Jules Massenet: Don Quichotte (1910)”

  1. And yet it’s one of a handful of operas that makes me cry.

    (The other was Adams’ Nixon in China – and that was sheer terror!)

    My parents got to see Ferrucio Furlanetto sing Don Quichotte in Sydney earlier this year. I was busy moving towns at the time.


    1. I just find the finale a bit rushed, I wish it was longer. In context though it is tragic, but not a romanticized tragedy, a very human one. Dulcinee is a good example of a contralto heroine (for once) while I feel Massenet definitely identified with his title character and Sancho.

      I’ve only ever heard excerpts of Nixon in China, I’m not sure if the musical style the the type that gets me to cry, usually that is Verdi or Moniuszko (Otello and Halka get me every time, for different reasons). I’m stuck in the 19th century. By the way, great post on Halevy!

      Liked by 1 person

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