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BSO gives captivating retelling of 'Don Quixote'

Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe.

Rafael Fruehbeck de Burgos had a quixotic and captivating concept for this week's BSO program -- two complementary musical responses to the Spanish national novel, ''Don Quixote."

Manuel de Falla's ''Master Peter's Puppet Show" is a half-hour gem, a retelling for singers, puppets, and chamber orchestra of a single episode from Cervantes's masterpiece. Richard Strauss's ''Don Quixote" is a set of 10 variations for large orchestra and cello soloist; each variation depicts an episode from the book, or a different facet of the character of the knight of the woeful countenance.

''Master Peter's Puppet Show" is a favorite of the Spanish maestro, and he asked the Bob Brown Puppets to re-create the production they developed for the National Symphony Orchestra a few years ago. The chamber orchestra sat on the left of the stage with the singers; the puppet theater was on the right.

The story of the rescue of the captive maiden from the Moors was played within the theater; in front of it, larger-than-life puppets took the roles the singers gave voice to -- Don Quixote; Master Peter, the puppeteer; and the boy narrator. Six puppeteers brought such vigorous and charming life to the puppets that one could hardly blame Don Quixote for mistaking their work for reality. He destroys the theater with his lance; the audience shares his shock at the massacre of the puppets.

Jonathan Lemalu, an outstanding bass from New Zealand, sang Don Quixote with force and sensitivity, and young Awet Andemicael -- a Harvard graduate -- brought a sweet, vibrant, penetrating soprano to the boy's narration. Tenor Peter Bronder was forthright as Master Peter. Under Fruehbeck's authoritative direction, the playing was elegant and pertinent.

Strauss's work is a BSO warhorse. Mop-headed British cellist Steven Isserlis as Don Quixote played with personality and pathos, always keeping inside Don Quixote's imagination as it engages with the outside world; his death was a groan, not a sigh. Principal viola Steven Ansell brilliantly characterized Sancho Panza as exasperated, warmhearted, and entirely content to live in a world where two plus two always equals four. Oboist John Ferrillo brought immortal longings to Dulcinea's beautiful theme.

Fruehbeck must have the most sophisticated baton technique in the business. He liberates his soloists to play with the utmost personal expression, hastening and lingering, but safe in the knowledge that everyone else will be right there with them. Symphony Hall was not quite full, but when the word gets out, there shouldn't be an empty seat at the remaining performance.

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Rafael Fruehbeck de Burgos, guest conductor
At: Symphony Hall, Thursday night (repeats tonight)

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