Don Quichotte hasn't found its way into the repertoire with Massenet's most popular operas, but it's musically one of his most attractive works. It's unabashedly melodic and evokes a strong sense of locale, which Massenet was so consistently skillful at creating. It's admittedly foolhardy to try to reduce Cervantes' sprawling chronicle into an evening's entertainment, but if the listener can put the source out of mind, it's possible to admire the economy of the libretto by Henri Cain, based on the popular and successful 1904 play by Jacques le Lorrain, which wisely limits itself to one incident with Dulcinea and the Don's subsequent death. Massenet called his opera a "heroic comedy," an apt description; he is able to maintain a tone that acknowledges both the humor of the situation and the nobility of the Don's character.
The sound quality of this live, Italian-language Milan performance in 1957 is mediocre, but it's never distractingly bad, and the quality of the individual performances transcends the sound. The Don is on-stage for virtually the entire opera; the part requires a singer of exceptional charisma to make the eccentric character credible, and Boris Christoff ideally fills the role. He brings a dark, Russian sound to the part, and the otherness of his voice and his innate gravity make him a perfect foil to the superficiality of the society in which the Don is situated. (There's a venerable tradition of Russian basses taking the role, beginning with Chaliapin, who sang at the 1910 premiere.) Christoff fully inhabits the part, making it completely believable that the Don can charm both the leader of the bandits and Dulcinea with his innocence and sincerity, and his death scene is hugely moving. Christoff is surrounded by an exemplary cast. Carlo Badioli makes a bumptious but devoted Sancho and he sings with richness and power. Teresa Berganza's Dulcinea is warm, delicate but voluptuous, and sympathetically drawn. The smaller parts are taken by skillful singers who are also dramatically effective. Orchestre Sinfonico e Coro di Milano della RAI perform beautifully, with energy and tenderness, under Alfredo Simonetto. Newer recordings may surpass the acoustics of this version, but it's invaluable as record of an idiomatic performance that's fully satisfying musically and dramatically. The CD also includes Christoff singing Leporello's "Madamina, il catalogo è questo," and three rare concert arias by Mozart.