Halffter: Don Quijote

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“This rejection of realism is formulated in terms of a dramatic staticism—clearly visible in the work’s mise-en-scène—and in the makeup of a libretto that privileges the dialogic over the descriptive or narrative aspects, which are mainly entrusted to a chorus with a function similar to that of the Greek chorus; the weight of dialogues, present especially from Scene III onwards, determines the paralysis of action in favor of the exhibition of moods and ideological theses.” When I see a sentence like that (and yes, it is a single sentence) in the notes accompanying any piece of music, I tremble. Perhaps some of its convoluted nature is caused by bad translation—but the fact is that in the end, the extensive notes (in four languages) that accompany Cristóbal Halffter’s one-act opera were of very little help in setting some kind of musical and dramatic context that would help the listener place this work.

Halffter, born in 1930, is a nephew of Ernesto Halffter and studied with Alexandre Tansman. He is also a professor of composition at the Madrid Conservatory, and he composed Don Quijote between 1996 and 1999. It was premiered at the Teatro Real in Madrid in 2000. The dramatic concept is very interesting—the inclusion of Cervantes as a character, with Don Quixote and him as kind of alter egos, is both clever and effective. The fictional character occasionally challenges the author: “Why defeats always? Why never victories”? In fact, much of the opera is conceived as an interchange between the fictional character and his creator, with Cervantes dying in the end and Don Quixote living on in mythical eternity. It is an extremely engaging idea, and I would love to see the opera on stage.

This was not Halffter’s first attempt to bring Don Quixote to life musically. In 1971, he wrote Mito—Don Quijote (“The Myth—Don Quixote”), so it is fair to say that this subject has occupied him for some time. This is not an opera for those whose musical tastes are tenaciously conservative; if you find Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle a stretch, Don Quijote is probably not your cup of sangria. Halffter’s musical grammar is tough, frequently dissonant, rarely tuneful in any traditional sense, though he does occasionally refer back to ancient Spanish music. This can never be background music, even if you are someone who can listen to Madame Butterfly—or even Salome—in the background. This music demands your total involvement, and it is likely to wring you out. The opera’s finale is remarkable in its inventiveness and imagination, particularly in terms of instrumental color.

Halffter’s music is very powerful, and I found it absolutely necessary to follow along with the supplied libretto and translation in order to fully engage with it. Like so many modernistic scores, one wishes for more contrast, more variety of mood, rhythmic profile, and texture. Halffter’s music is very much his own, but to try to give the listener some kind of reference point, I would say that if you react positively to the music of Henze, or Birtwistle, or Gerhard, you are likely to find this work appealing. There is no question that it is a major musical statement by an important composer, even if it will of necessity have appeal only to a portion of the opera audience.

One could hardly wish for a better performance and recording. Cervantes and Quixote are both baritone roles, and the two protagonists sing with accuracy, feeling, and alertness. The ladies are also first-rate, as is the orchestra and conductor. This is no read-through, but a deeply engaged performance. The sound is just about ideal—colorful, warm, spacious, and clear. The only complaint is regarding that extremely dense essay in the accompanying booklet. The listener could have used a good deal more help in preparing for this opera. This essay, if it makes sense at all, might be more appropriate for a musicology class already familiar with the work. Nonetheless, this is an important recording of an important new opera.

Henry Fogel, FANFARE

Product Description:

  • Release Date: September 13, 2004

  • Catalog Number: GSP98004

  • UPC: 8424562980044

  • Label: Glossa

  • Number of Discs: 2

  • Composer: Cristobal Halffter

  • Conductor: Pedro Halffter-Caro

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Madrid Symphony Orchestra, Spanish National Chorus

  • Performer: Eduardo Santamaria, Enrique Baquerizo, Javier Roldan, Josep-Miquel Ramon i Monzó, Santiago S. Jerico