HALFFTER: Don Quijote

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 CristÛbal 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-‡-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

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 CabezÛn 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 AndrÈs AmorÛs, 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
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 (AsÌ se hace una opera: Don Quijote; Barcelona, Lunwerg, 2004)
reproduces photos by JosÈ Antonio RobÈs 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 Piz‡
Foundation for Iberian Music
The Graduate Center, The City University of New York

image_description=CristÛbal Halffter: Don Quijote
product_title=CristÛbal Halffter: Don Quijote
product_by=Josep Miquel RamÛn (Cervantes); Enrique Baquerizo (Don Quijote); Eduardo SantamarÌa (Sancho); Diana Tiegs (Dulcinea); MarÌa RodrÌguez (Aldonza); Fabiola Masino, Alicia MartÌnez, Ana H‰ssler, Santiago S·nchez JericÛ, Fernando Latorre, Javier Rold·n, supporting soloists. Coro Nacional de EspaÒa; Orquesta SinfÛnica de Madrid; Pedro Halffter Caro, conductor.
Recorded July 2003, Auditorio Nacional, Madrid, Spain.
product_id=Glossa GSP 98004 [2CDs]