Cristóbal Halffter's opera is a philosophically earnest and sophisticated work that often succeeds on a purely musical level. However, as an opera based on the story of Don Quixote, it suffers from a severe lack of fun and adventure, and ultimately seems out of step with the optimistic spirit of its titular character. Miguel de Cervantes' novel Don Quixote is in essence a comedy, full of hilarious details in its plot, characterizations, and structure. Halffter, by contrast, uses Cervantes' own life, which certainly was no comedy, as the framework for the libretto, casting the opera as a story of the author's existential struggle to create a timeless myth. Fully the first quarter of the opera is devoted to Cervantes' attempts to get started writing the novel; the final scene, which takes up the last quarter of the opera, is largely cast as a debate between the author and his character, and culminates in Cervantes' death. The middle of the opera, which is the only section actually derived from the novel, consists of only three scenes. In other words, the opera would have more appropriately been titled "Cervantes."
On a purely aural level, however, for any listener attuned to European modernism with expressionist tendencies, the work can be appreciated as a striking, well-crafted, and memorable piece of music. It is dramatic music full of intriguing orchestral textures and propulsive energy, leavened occasionally by references to music of the Spanish Renaissance. But the tone is so relentlessly dark, and so frequently harrowing that it is virtually impossible to imagine it having anything to do with the Don Quixote of Cervantes' novel. In terms of emotional impact, it is much closer to the spirit of Picasso's Guernica, and can in fact be more profitably listened to with that image in mind, as an expression of the madness surrounding the Spanish Civil War and the chaos and suffering that Picasso depicts so disturbingly.
The opera received its premiere in Madrid in 2001. Glossa's studio recording is stylishly produced and includes a libretto and a booklet of thoughtful essays on the opera. The performance by the Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid and the Coro Nacional de España, conducted by Pedro Halffter Caro, is utterly convincing. The soloists are consistently fine, negotiating Halffter's disjunct vocal lines with passion and apparent ease.