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Recordings

Cristóbal Halffter: Don Quijote
19 May 2006

HALFFTER: Don Quijote

I can’t imagine a more utopian enterprise for a composer than writing an opera at the end of the twentieth century.

Cristóbal Halffter: Don Quijote

Josep Miquel Ramón (Cervantes); Enrique Baquerizo (Don Quijote); Eduardo Santamaría (Sancho); Diana Tiegs (Dulcinea); María Rodríguez (Aldonza); Fabiola Masino, Alicia Martínez, Ana Hässler, Santiago Sánchez Jericó, Fernando Latorre, Javier Roldán, supporting soloists. Coro Nacional de España; Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid; Pedro Halffter Caro, conductor.
Recorded July 2003, Auditorio Nacional, Madrid, Spain.

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If the composer is a Spaniard and the subject matter is Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the endeavor borders on the “Quixotic”—e.g. an unrealistic and impracticable goal, but also an idealistic and noble one.

This is exactly what Cristóbal Halffter (Madrid 1930) has done. Now in his seventies, Halffter claims that he never before tackled the genre of opera for many reasons, including lack of infrastructure and funding to produce it, suitable subject matter and librettist, and, of course, the controversial status of opera among avant-garde composers. What can a modern composer say within the limits and conventions of opera, if the genre is stripped of tonality, arias, choruses, and straightforward narrative and drama? On the other hand, what can be his or her contribution to the existing settings of Don Quixote, especially vis-à-vis such notable examples by Telemann, Strauss, and Manuel de Falla? Needless to say, Halffter has risen to the occasion and, having overcome all these challenges, has created a work that is an opera and is about Don Quixote, but provides a fresh spin on both the traditional genre and the legendary, over-exposed subject matter.

Written in one single act of six scenes and lasting a little over two hours, Halffter’s Don Quijote is pure joy, an endless source of musical surprises. (Extremist cyber critics, as is to be expected, have trashed it mercilessly.) It is, in addition, a work of “absolute” Halffter. Drawing on many modernist idioms such as dissonance, indeterminacy, and quotations, Don Quijote is characterized by some of the composer’s most recognizable trademarks. One of them consists of gradually building larger masses of sound by layering on top of each other musical motives or instrumental sections and, then, after a ferocious eruption or burst, continuing with a plodding recession into one single original stratum.

In this Don Quijote there are no conventional successions of recitatives and arias. The treatment of chorus, also, is unusual, being deployed as a Greek chorus, that is to say, not as a participant in the plot but rather a commentator on the events. On the other hand, quotes from historical music play an important role, contextualizing the action in Renaissance Spain with materials elaborated from Antonio de Cabezón and the joyful Juan del Encina. The handling of these materials oscillates between modernist settings to period ensembles such as one including a harp (the typical continuo in Iberian music), harpsichord, 2 violas, and cellos. The libretto, written by Andrés Amorós, is not really action driven, but settles on a selection of dialogue from Cervantes’ original book as well as from freshly written ones, and includes some liberties such as the character of Miguel de Cervantes sharing the stage with Don Quixote.

Some listeners will be surprised that good old Sancho Panza is a tenor and the Don a baritone. Needless to say, Halffter as a former enfant terrible of modern music still enjoys going against the expectations of listeners, and that is not necessarily bad. Listeners, being creatures of habit, resent newness, but once they take the leap, the rewards are often assured. The recording and the performers seem to be optimal, although to date there are no possible comparisons on CD. One can discern, nevertheless, the passion, the long hours, the enthusiasm performers and producers have put in this Quixotic adventure. That in itself is a plus.

Halffter has declared that he considers the “book” the highest achievement of humankind. There is a big truth in this statement and one need not to be reminded that, in Cervantes’s novel, the cause of Don Quixote’s lunacy is attributed to reading. An interesting coffee table book (Así se hace una opera: Don Quijote; Barcelona, Lunwerg, 2004) reproduces photos by José Antonio Robés Cuadrado of the original production in Madrid in 2000. Designed by the late Herbert Wernicke, the most prominent feature on the stage is a mountain of gigantic books, both symbol of Don Quixote’s madness as well as a vindication of utopianism. Books, we are often told, are being displaced by new forms of communication, as opera is being supplanted by other musical genres, and the modernist idiom has been superseded by postmodern tonality. Somewhere somewhat, however, these creative instances manage to survive in the hands of some artists. Halffter is one of them.

Antoni Pizà
Foundation for Iberian Music
The Graduate Center, The City University of New York

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