BBC Radio 3, 22 November 2009
First broadcast in 1995 and now repeated to mark the 350th anniversary of Henry Purcell's birth, this epic adaptation of Cervantes' novel with music by a variety of seventeenth century composers, including Purcell, was a star-studded affair with the late Paul Scofield as a geriatric Don Quixote with an aptitude for poetry and an insatiable love of romance, supported by Roy Hudd as the loyal Sancho Panza, perpetually telling his master not to become involved in too many conflicts, while taking any and every opportunity to sing comic songs (something Hudd has become particularly renowned for over many years). Musical interludes were provided by Emma Kirkby, Emma Tubbs, David Thomas and Doug Wootton, with the Consort of Musicke and the Purcell Sinfony conducted by Anthony Rooley. Truly an epic production both in terms of resources and length (3 hours 15 minutes).
Writer/director Don Taylor transformed Cervantes' text into a meditation on the writing process. The action was punctuated by several interludes, which involved Durfay (Bill Wallis) desperately fighting to preserve his text against intrusion from other dramatists. Meanwhile Purcell (Douglas Hodge) struggled to finish the music amidst a welter of prior commitments, and thereby fulfil what he saw as a great favour for theatre manager Betterton (Roger Allam). Eventually he accomplished his task, but paid for it with his life. Such interludes - which suggested that Don Quixote was being written and rewritten spontaneously - showed how the picaresque novel is rather random in construction; event follows event without any real logical structure. This, in Taylor's view, was analogous to the workings of the imagination (in this case, Purcell's and Durfay's imagination) which moves randomly from topic to topic without any apparent reason.
The link between Cervantes' text and the creative imagination was underlined at the end, as Purcell's death was paralleled with that of Don Quixote himself. Both men were incurable romantics, blessed with powerful imaginations that could transform the grimy realities of daily life into something rich and strange. Purcell used music as his method of expression; Don Quixote made use of the romance form. While we might have sympathized with Don Quixote as he suffered indignity after indignity in his quest, we simultaneously admired his courage and his refusal to give up in the face of the most extreme adversity. Like the composer struggling to finish his commission against impossible odds, he refused to give up. At the end we were left feeling uplifted; although both men passed away, they left a legacy, both musical and romantic, that should serve as an example to anyone blessed with a creative imagination.