Despite compelling music, muddled scenario proves fatal to Lyric Opera’s “Bel Canto”
Anthony Freud’s favorite adjective for his model of a modern major opera house is that it must be “relevant.”
The Lyric Opera of Chicago’s general director got more relevance than he could ever have imagined with the world premiere of Bel Canto Monday night at the Civic Opera House. When the company commissioned an opera three years ago based on Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel about a South American hostage crisis, who could have foreseen that the world premiere would come on the heels of bloody terrorist attacks in Paris and California?
Ripped-from-the-headlines timeliness apart, Bel Canto marks a significant project for the Chicago company, as Lyric’s first commission in 11 years since William Bolcom’s A Wedding. The centerpiece of Renée Fleming’s creative consultancy at Lyric Opera, the singer-administrator curated this commission, selecting composer Jimmy López, librettist Nilo Cruz, and soprano Danielle de Niese, in consultation with music director Sir Andrew Davis.
Lyric Opera has pulled out all the stops for this much-publicized premiere, and indeed delivered a first-class production and strong and committed performance Monday night at the Civic Opera House. Yet ultimately, Bel Canto proves less than the sum of its parts; after a fast-paced and crackling first half, the opera founders in a grievously muddled second act, due largely to the inadequacies of Patchett’s source material.
The scenario tells of the celebrated American opera star Roxane Coss (de Niese) who is invited to sing at the home of the Peruvian vice president, Ruben Iglesias (William Burden). The event is a birthday party for the Japanese industrialist Katsumi Hosokawa (Jeongcheol Cha) who is a committed fan of the soprano.
The toney gathering is abruptly interrupted as guerillas from the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) burst in on the party led by the hostile general Alfredo (Rafael Davila). The terrorists beat Iglesias and menace the partygoers, shooting one, and taking all hostage. A Red Cross negotiator Joachim Messner (Jacques Imbrailo) attempts to mediate between the guerillas and the Peruvian military government to little avail.
As the days and weeks wear on, the hostility and suspicion between the hostages and their captors begins to break down. Roxane gives voice lessons to the guerilla Cesar (Anthony Roth Costanzo), an aspiring singer. A romance blossoms between Roxane and her admirer Hosokawa, as well as one between Hosokawa’s interpreter Gen Watanabe (Andrew Stenson) and Carmen, a female Tupac member (J’nai Bridges). The communal good feeling is violently dispelled as the Peruvian military breaks in, killing all the terrorists as well as the Japanese innocents, ending the opera on a tragic note, as Roxane laments the death of Hosokawa (“You’re not Gone”).
The good news about Bel Canto is that the biggest question mark about this production–the music of the virtually unknown Jimmy López–turns out to be its most successful element. In his first opera, the Peruvian composer has crafted a compelling and remarkable score, and the restless, surging, clangorous music–think mid-period John Adams crossed with Prokofiev–propels the action at a frantic pace. López’s orchestration consistently engages the ear, wrapping the dramatic moments in thrusting accents and pulsing rhythms with high winds, strident brass and metallic percussion.
And yet one walks out of the theater impressed by López’s music without being convinced that the opera house is his natural milieu. The writing is capably if not always gratefully crafted for voices—though the mass scene in Act 2 is beautifully done–and individual arias, which come mostly in Act II, are likewise pleasant enough but less inspired than the darker dramatic moments. The edgy, biting sounds coming out of the pit Monday were often more intriguing than what was happening on stage, and it’s hard not to feel that the orchestra is López’s true medium.
Surprisingly, it is Nilo Cruz’s libretto that is most problematic, though not entirely of his own fault. All the international characters speak and sing in their own languages and the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright deftly handles the eight languages (English, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, German, French, Latin and Quechua), which presents no issues for audiences in the era of translated supertitles. Cruz’s text in dramatic moments is taut, lean and effective.
Yet the Cuban-American writer’s characteristic high-flying poetic imagery sounds jarringly out of place in a storyline of such stark realism. Such lines as “Our desires beckon us to the skin of the night” and “Roots are growing on my feet, and bindweed around my legs to stop me from running to your face,” seem not only out of place but strained and comically overwritten.
Yet the main problem with Bel Canto is Patchett’s novel itself and her implausible character motivations and situations, which frequently emerged as preposterous in live action on stage. Even in the elastic verisimilitude of the genre, the romance between Roxane and Hokosawa is wholly unbelievable as is that of Gen with the guerilla, Carmen. The cutesy upstairs-downstairs love quartet feels not only out of place but vaguely ridiculous.
Even more off-putting than the flimsy motivations is Patchett’s rad-chic romanticized view of the Tupac guerillas. Granted, compared to the cold-blooded jihadists of today, the Peruvian insurgents were a relatively benign bunch (no hostages were killed in the actual event the novel is based upon). But Patchett’s conceit that the immediacy and appeal of beautiful singing (“bel canto”) transcends not only nationalities but even the most extreme and violent ideologies seems painfully and dangerously naive in 2015.
That problem is compounded by the opera’s awkward handling of the terrorists’ transition, with an abrupt and baffling 180-degree turn by the guerilla leader Alfredo and his compadres from brutal invaders to amiable housemates; the formerly violent general happily agrees to hold their soccer game outside so as not to disturb Cesar’s voice lesson with Roxane.
That scene feels like a crucial section is missing, with an extended orchestral introduction to Roxane responding to Alfredo’s command to sing, which one guesses is supposed to turn the terrorists’ hearts. She sits at the piano and–no singing. There is a brief pause and the action continues to the next numbered scene. What the heck happened?
In Patchett’s dramaturgy, the lovable revolutionaries and hostages somehow wind up building an idealized community, playing cards together, the terrorist Beatriz puts flowers in her rifle and the vice president helps mend the terrorist’s uniforms. One can only empathize with the increasingly frustrated Red Cross emissary Messner: “Are you people crazy?” When the Peruvian military breaks in and shoots the terrorists, the martyrdom we are supposed to feel for them is as lacking as the dramatic plausibility in their change of heart that preceded it.
Another key problem with Bel Canto is the handling of the main character, Roxane. In the opera she is even more of a vacuous, entitled diva then in the novel, responding selfishly to the terrorist break-in (“I have to be in Milan!”) Danielle de Niese is a lovely charismatic presence with an attractive voice and while she performed gamely in this world premiere, her superficial portrayal failed to bring much dramatic depth and complexity to Roxane, much less make her segue into a more human and compassionate figure credible.
Among the large cast, Rafael Davila was the standout as the guerilla leader, Alfredo. Though no one could sell the character’s instant transition from brutal terrorist to rough-edged nice guy, the burly Puerto Rican tenor was aptly characterful and menacing and sang the demanding role with a big heroic tenor in his company debut.
As the pliable Carmen, J’nai Bridges made the most of her Act 2 aria, the Ryan Center alum singing with her rich, smoky mezzo. In his Lyric debut Anthony Roth Costanzo sang with pure and flexible tone as Cesar, the world’s only terrorist countertenor. Bradley Smoak sounded strained as Benjamin, Alfredo’s second in command.
Jeongcheol Cha displayed a firm and resonant bass-baritone as Hosokawa with Andrew Stenson showing a youthful tenor as his translator Gen. As the lovelorn Russian diplomat Fyodorov, Runi Brattaberg showed striking agility with his subterranean bass, making much out of his little song about his art book.
William Burden was unrecognizable yet wholly credible as the vice-president Iglesias. Jacques Imbrailo proved effective and endearing as the agitated Messner. Takoko Onishi was the sympathetic priest Father Arguedas and John Irvin worthy as Roxane’s ill-fated accompanist Christopf.
David Korins’ palatial setting for the vice-president’s home got the job done with a functional two-level unit design, bedroom and kitchen boxes effectively rolling into view like Joseph Cornell cabinets for the dueling romantic trysts. Constance Hoffman’s costumes effectively marked the passing time, contrasting the elegant finery of Act 1 with the worn and slovenly look of Act 2.
Director Kevin Newbury did a remarkable job of not only effectively blocking the primary action but devising actions for the large cast of hostages and dozens of extras onstage, with the moment of the terrorist attack frightening and genuinely nerve-wracking.
Andrew Davis led the Lyric Opera Orchestra in a thrilling and virtuosic performance of Lopez’s restless, roiling score, which makes one wish that Lyric management would give their music director and orchestra more opportunities to perform 20th- and 21st-century music. The chorus singing under Michael Black’s direction was exemplary.
Bel Canto runs through January 17. Two January performances will be taped for later broadcast on PBS’s Great Performances. lyricopera.org; 312-827-5600.