Part Two of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote was published in 1615. A number of events this year have celebrated the fourth centennial of this literary event. Surely the most delightful was a performance of Manuel de Falla’s short opera for puppets Master Peter’s Puppet Show (El Retablo de Maese Pedro), performed in Sanders Theater on Friday, October 2nd, by the enterprising new company Unitas Ensemble, founded last spring by music director Lina Marcela González and Executive Director Andrew Moreschi.
De Falla had a lifelong fascination for puppets, so he was naturally delighted to receive a commission from the Princess Edmonde de Polignac, a famous patroness of new music in the early years of the 20th century. The composer chose a passage from Don Quixot Part 2, Chapter 26, and adapted the text himself for three singers and a chamber orchestra to accompany a performance by puppets.
I confess that, having heard El Retablo only on recording for a number of years, I thought of it as a somewhat monotonous piece. My view altered 100% upon seeing the work as it is intended to be performed, as accompaniment to a puppet show. For this event the Unitas Ensemble engaged a distinguished Mexican puppeteer, Pablo Cueto, who is a third-generation puppet master, continuing a tradition founded by his grandparents. The Sanders performance used a set of puppets created for this piece forty years ago by Cueto’s mother, Mireya Cueto. With a team of other puppeteers—John Bell, Trudy Cohen, and Carmen Solis—he presented a colorful, dramatic performance of utter charm. (He surprised the audience at the end by coming out from behind the puppet theater in full Don Quixote costume, complete with lance, to take a special bow as much in honor of Cervantes as it was acknowledging his work as a puppeteer.
The puppet stage consisted of a traditional theatrical curtain with a proscenium, behind with the story was played out, and an exterior area in which puppets representing Don Quixote, the theater manager, and the boy narrator unfolded the story—one in which the Don takes the tale of a knight rescuing his bride from Moorish captivity to be entirely real, and in which he brings the show to a sudden end by attacking the “Moors” and laying waste to puppets and sets. For much of the show the story is narrated by a boy in front of the curtain (occasionally interrupted by Don Quixote, telling him to get on with it). The boy’s role was performed here by an adult soprano who sings with the white tone of a child. Master Pedro is represented by a tenor voice and Don Quixote by a baritone.
The members of the Unitas Ensemble assembled for this performance were conducted by Benjamin Juaréz. Three fine singers recounted the tale during the puppet show: soprano Marisa Canales, tenor David Evans, and baritone Héctor Vázquez. For the aid of non-Spanish speakers, the translation was projected on the screen above the puppet theater. The long and challenging part of the boy, presented mostly as a kind of chant on a single note, or with small inflections, was superbly represented by Marisa Canales, who had just the right tone color to suggest the boy narrator. And Héctor Vázquez was vivid in his representation of Don Quixote.
The Falla was the major work on the program, but it runs only 30 minutes, uncomfortably short even for a free program with no ticket charge. To fill it out, the performance began with two other pieces based on the Don Quixote story, works quite different in their musical character.
The event opened with an overture and chaconne from Don Quichotte chez la Duchesse by the French Baroque composer Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (1689-1775), played by the orchestra without conductor. It is a vigorous French overture, played with superbly tight ensemble and color, no doubt partly because the guest concert master was the distinguished violinist of the Cuarteto Latinoamericano, Saúl Bitran.
The other Don Quixote homage was the miniature song cycle Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, the last work completed by Maurice Ravel. (It was commissioned to be used in a projected film in which the great Russian basso Fyodor Chaliapin was to play the knight of the woeful countenance. The project turned out to be something of a scandal, since the film’s producers had simultaneously commissioned several composers—without telling them that they were engaging in a secret competition for the job.) Ravel wrote three diverse songs—one romantic, with Spanish‑tinted rhythms, one epic in a 5/4 meter typical of a Basque poetic genre, and a drinking song in the style of an Aragonese jota. In the past I have only heard them with piano accompaniment, so it was a pleasant surprise to encounter Ravel’s orchestral version on this occasion. Best of all was the engaging performance by baritone Héctor Vázquez, who characterized each of them with precise characterization, charm, and wit. Though he brought the songs fully to life in his singing, it would have been nice to have translations either printed in the program or projected on the screen, since they were in French and the audience was heavily oriented toward Spanish-speakers. Still, I’d be happy to hear that performance under any circumstances.
All in all, this free program of music inspired by Cervantes and his masterpiece was a true gift to the community, one that attracted a large audience (including a satisfying number of children) who evidently enjoyed the event as much as I did. Though it is a new member of Boston’s musical community, the Unitas Ensemble already has plans for a spring event to celebrate the centennial of the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera, something worth looking out for.