Don Quixote, a comedic romp of a ballet, was the perfect touch of entertainment in a San Francisco returning to life amid Covid restrictions, global unrest and other real-life challenges. “For my final season,” said artistic director Helgi Tomasson, concluding his 37-year-tenure this year, “we're bringing this classic back with great intention. Laughter in ballet is a rare gift, and joy is especially meaningful for our audiences today.” Well put, and a well-timed message, for Saturday’s opening night at the War Memorial Opera House.

Misa Kuranaga (Kitri) and Angelo Greco (Basilio)
© Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet's production, a 2003 Tomasson/Yuri Possokhov restaging of the 1869 Petipa classic (itself restaged by Alexander Gorsky in 1900), is an elaborate juggling act, nearly three hours long, with 152 roles, two large barnyard animals and an enormous, moving windmill. Its premise is only partially drawn from the Miguel de Cervantes novel. The rest of the story belongs to the lovers Kitri and Basilio, who are resisting Kitri’s innkeeper father’s wishes to marry her off to the wealthy, foppish Gamache, played with hilarity and perfect comic timing by Myles Thatcher. Enter into the town’s square Don Quixote (Jim Sohm) on a white horse, and his squire, Sancho Panza, in pursuit of adventure and the ancient art of chivalry. Pascal Molat, as the bumbling Sancho, was wildly funny, a welcome sight as a retired SFB principal. The spectacle of seeing him flung high in the air, not once but three times, courtesy of a net held by a circle of mischievous villagers, was pure circus fun. Gorgeous, candy-colored costumes against a Spanish-style town square and a blue ocean in the distance are courtesy of the late costume-and-set designer Martin Pakledinaz, a 2012 upgrade to the production. They are a delight and go a long way in augmenting the cheery, fun-loving mood.  

Jim Sohm (Don Quixote) and Pascal Molat (Sancho Panza)
© Erik Tomasson

Debuting in the production as Kitri was Misa Kuranaga, formerly a principal with Boston Ballet. It was her biggest night on the SFB stage since joining the company in 2019 just before Covid shutdowns. As Kitri, she was charming and artful, if not singular (that title goes to fellow principal Mathilde Froustey). Her turns were strong, her leaps airy and her chemistry with Angelo Greco’s Basilio brought further energy to the ballet.

In the town square, the two sweethearts outwit Kitri’s father and Gamache and escape into a countryside dotted with windmills, where they are invited to join a group of Gitanos around their camp. Shortly behind, however, are Kitri and Basilio’s pursuers, whom the Gitanos distract with a puppet show as Kitri and Basilio hide. But things go wrong when Don Quixote mistakes the female puppet for Dulcinea, his idealized dream love. Growing deranged, he starts charging everyone with his jousting pole, then attacks a now-moving windmill before collapsing on the ground. The dream scene that follows, augmented by some of Ludwig Minkus’ best music, is the ballet at its loveliest. Norika Matsuyama was utterly charming and danced beautifully as Cupid. Sasha Mukhamedov leapt and spun as a glorious Queen of the Driads. She’s a striking soloist, with big jumps and power-filled movements, with an equally effective delicate touch. Female students from the ballet school joined the tutu-clad Driad corps to create a scene that was pretty as a picture, aided by a starry-night set and James F Ingalls’ lighting. It was a lovely interlude, accompanied by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra’s lush, full sound, under the baton of music director Martin West.  

Angelo Greco (Basilio) and Misa Kuranaga (Kitri)
© Erik Tomasson

Greco shone as Basilio. He’s one of the top leapers and turners in a company that already hosts impressive talent on its roster. In his solo variation during Act 3’s famous grand pas de deux, his gravity-defying leaps and turns were like watching Olympic ice-skaters. There was a thrill, a sense that we were watching something grand that had never been tried before. His airborne body was at an almost horizontal incline as he produced a double jeté en tournant that, for the briefest instant, I thought, “is he going to land this all right?” Little gasps arising from the audience around me told me I wasn’t the only one agog at his daring leaps. And yes, he landed each one beautifully. Kuranaga, too, wowed the audience with her dizzying double fouettés and impeccable technique throughout the grand pas de deux that culminated in the coda.

Sarah Van Patten (Mercedes) and Luke Ingham (Espada)
© Erik Tomasson

Other standouts in the production include Luke Ingham’s commanding presence as the toreador Espada and Sarah Van Patten, as an exciting, compelling Mercedes. Ellen Rose Hummel was all whirling passion in her Gitana solo. Kitri’s friends, Julia Rowe and Isabella DeVivo, were a delight to watch throughout, in a production that ran close to three hours but felt like two... so it goes with great entertainment.