Lyric Opera lifts the veil on its work-in-progress “Bel Canto” 

July 15, 2014
By Dennis Pokow
Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

On Friday, the Lyric Opera of Chicago presented what it called a “Bel Canto Workshop” for some members of the media and a select group of donors in its William Mason rehearsal room.

The purpose was a sneak preview of sorts of the company’s Renée Fleming-curated Bel Canto, the commissioned opera by Peruvian composer Jimmy López and a libretto by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz based on the 2001 bestseller by Ann Patchett.

Photocopies of sections of the libretto that were to be rehearsed were distributed with the caveat that they needed to be returned before anyone left the room as the work was still in progress.

Sir Andrew Davis, who will conduct the world premiere of Bel Canto in December of 2015, introduced the proceedings by waxing enthusiastically about the opera as it has taken shape since the commission was first announced in February of 2012.

Davis conducted two pianos played by Maureen Zoltek and Craig Terry while all eleven members of the Ryan Opera Center were lined across the space to sing individual roles, sometimes multiple roles, as well as choral parts as needed. The creative team watched and took notes from tables off to the side.

The first and second scenes of a projected three-scene Act I were presented virtually complete, although one aria near the end of Scene Two was skipped over. The orchestral prologue and orchestral interludes were also performed.

Critics were asked not to “review” what was heard, but the scenes presented were carefully crafted and flowed organically between through-composed dramatic sections and arias. The first of the solo items was sung by soprano Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi in the leading role of Roxanne, an opera singer who in this aria is performing for a group of diplomats in Peru (a more-specified locale than Patchett’s unnamed Latin American country).

These opening scenes serve as a way to introduce the characters who will be held hostage by terrorists during most of the opera, each, curiously enough, singing in their own language. Thus, we hear characters singing English, Catalan, Russian, Japanese, et al, which sounds more chaotic than it comes across, as López’s music acts as a unifying narrator of sorts. (One has to feel for whoever has the unenviable job of generating audience-friendly supertitles for all of this.)

The attack of the terrorists came across as a compelling moment musically and dramatically. Davis reminded everyone that the orchestration for the attack features “lots of string glissandi, which you will have to imagine as played by the pianos.”

The portions heard of Act II deal with the deepening relationships between the hostages and their captors, and, by contrast, is more relaxed, with moments of introspection and even humor. Only Scene One and portions of Scene Two were presented, at which point the creative team made some remarks and took questions.

In the Q&A session after the rehearsal Lopez stated that he did not compose the work in order–rather he began with the first aria that Roxanne sings and some of the other sections before going back and linking them up musically. “Time is frozen in a music score,” he said. “There are motifs of things in the second act that are hinted at in Act I because you can go back and forth.” Lopez also admitted that the reason we did not hear the finale of either act is that they had not yet been written. “I am hopefully saving the best for last!”

Cruz admitted that his challenge in terms of structure has been that “there are two central moments dramatically: the attack, and the release. After the attack, how do you get the audience to come back after Act I?” The Cuban-American writer also said that initially Patchett, who attended Lyric’s original announcement and recently did a speaking engagement for the company, has been “quite distant” from the libretto process.

“She was sent various drafts of the libretto,” noted Davis, “but we heard nothing for a long time and did not know what to make of that but didn’t want to stir up anything. At long last, she e-mailed back that she thought that the libretto was more beautiful than her novel.”

The creative team was scheduled to go through some set designs after the workshop, the designs of which were not shown since they had not yet been formally approved. Director Kevin Newbury described them as “magic realism, not naturalism, where we can get inside characters’ private spaces. There will be some video as well, but hopefully it won’t seem like video but extensions of the characters’ experiences.”

There was no update on casting apart from the previously announced Danielle de Niese as Roxanne. It was revealed that the role of the young terrorist Cesar, sung at the workshop by mezzo Julie Anne Miller, would be taken by a countertenor. The role of Fyodorov, sung by Richard Ollarsaba Friday, would be a Russian-style deep bass.

All present admitted that the most important work was still ahead and that Lopez and Cruz still have much to do.

“We started work in 2012 so that is already two and a half years,” said Lopez. “The end result that you heard today is the result of a lot of collaboration back and forth. We have had several meetings all across the world. Sometimes the libretto needed to be cut, sometimes expanded. What we have now is pretty finely tuned. We talk once a week.”

“Imagine,” added Davis. “We have the Strauss-Hofmannsthal correspondence preserved because it was done via letters. In this day and age of e-mails and cell phones, not so much!”

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