Saturday, March 25, 2017

'Man of La Mancha' rounds out the change-driven Indianapolis Opera season

Sancho Panza, as the knight's squire, and Don Quixote set out on their adventures.
One of the great bromances of literature takes life onstage in a production of a celebrated musical this weekend at the Schrott Center.

In "Man of La Mancha," the buddy road trip of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza is necessarily shrunk from Miguel de Cervantes' trailblazing novel to some of its essentials by Dale Wasserman and his songwriting collaborators. It's being presented through Sunday to end the 2016-17 Indianapolis Opera season.

The insight of Wasserman to thread the author's real-life difficulties through the story of the deluded knight makes the prize-winning adaptation a hymn to idealism summed up in the show's hit song, "The Impossible Dream."

The opening-night performance Friday held the banner aloft in the Schrott's intimate setting, giving a chamber-opera feel to this rendition. The adventures are largely centered on the inn that the deluded knight mistakes for a castle. The "Moorish Dance" episode is cut, and a couple of projections serve to render Don Quixote's visions, including the famous tilting at windmills.

New IO general director David Craig Starkey directs a cast headed by David Malis as Cervantes/Quixote. Once you get used to a stout Don Quixote and a slender Sancho Panza (Scott Wichael), the partnership works pretty well. John Clanton conducts the small, lively orchestra. Ensemble work was well-coordinated and the sung finale,  returning to the "frame" setting of a Spanish prison after Cervantes is led away for questioning, is a stirring reprise of "The Impossible Dream."

The show's underlined message, depicted most movingly in the conversion of the maid-of-all-work (some of it on her back) Aldonza from bitter skepticism to belief, is that often brutal reality needs to be opposed by something finer. The tipping point, however, is when notions of those fine beliefs overtake the believer.

 "Vice, death, poverty, disease, are grave subjects and grieve us," wrote Michel de Montaigne, a near-contemporary of Cervantes, in a late essay. "We should have our souls instructed in the means to sustain and combat evils, and in the rules of right living and right belief, and should often arouse it and exercise it in this fine study. But for a soul of the common sort  this must be done with some respite and with moderation; it goes mad if it is too continually tense."

The Padre (Joseph Levitt) and Antonia (Marci Jackson) proclaim their concern.
Don Quixote has no moderation and is continually tense about his soul's mission. The character rightly needs to appear somewhat ridiculous to "soul[s] of the common sort." Both Cervantes' work and Wasserman's adaptation tease the audience to consider that most of us are not much different from the family of the old country gentleman Alonso Quihana, who are embarrassed at his self-enthrallment by chivalric fiction and his subsequent quest to revive outmoded manners. The song "I'm Only Thinking of Him," well brought off in this production (especially by Marci Jackson as the niece Antonia), clearly invites us to examine the social pressure to conform — even in our own distracted times.

Malis' performance mostly presented the Don as a solid, good-hearted citizen with an eccentric hobby —  a knighthood reenactor. Though we are meant to be won over to the visionary hero eventually, just as Cervantes'  fellow prisoners are won over by his narrative, this Don Quixote could have used a more maniacal quality. Karen Mushegain's fiery, expressive Aldonza had to resist the knight-errant's concept of her as the lady Dulcinea almost entirely on the supposition of his playing a cruel trick on her. The eye-rolling attitude that drastic eccentricity usually arouses was best expressed by Christopher Burchett as the Innkeeper, who politely humors Don Quixote, deftly parrying his delusional thrusts.

The Muleteers prepare the violate the already much-abused Aldonza.
The goofiness of the deluded knight's mission is summed up in this production mostly by Wichael's Sancho, a sensible as well as sententious fellow willing to serve a man who takes him out of his dull rustic routine. The leading edge the squire provides in the comic song "A Little Gossip" was a highlight. Other singing peaks included Aldonza's "What Does He Want From Me," which, like Mushegain's vocal command in the deathbed scene, was more striking here than in the character's searing song of self-description, where clarity faded somewhat (partly from the orchestra's covering her). Malis allowed his well-seasoned baritone to blossom in "Man of La Mancha" and "The Impossible Dream," though he didn't project as well when called upon to use less than his full voice, as in the start of the latter song.

Nathaniel Hein has a nice little showcase in the barber's song. Rafael Porto shone as the self-important Dr. Carrasco, who, as the Captain of Mirrors, delivers the Don's poignant comeuppance. Joseph Levitt displayed the clergy's conventional probity, leavened with tender regard for the knight, as the Padre.

The Muleteers exhibited solid vocal and dramatic teamwork. The distressing sexual assault on Aldonza was a more effective display of fight choreography than the rather paint-by-numbers battle in which Don Quixote and his two allies vanquish their tormentors at the inn. Yet that was the scene in which Malis' comic gifts achieved a rare triumph, as the Don flails in ineffectual menace, his head covered by a bucket. When he removes the unwanted head covering, he looks around with a trace of self-satisfaction worthy of Sir John Falstaff. It was good to see the Don as a figure of fun in a portrayal that leaned a little too much toward the blandly avuncular.

[Photos by Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.]