REVIEW: Lyric Opera of Chicago's Premiere of 'Bel Canto' Aims for the Heart

By Louise Burton on Dec 09, 2015 08:13 AM EST

Bel Canto, the new opera that premiered at Lyric Opera of Chicago on Monday night, is based on Ann Patchett's novel of the same name, in which she explores the human relationships that evolve in the wake of a terrorist attack in a South American country. The events that unfold on the Civic Opera stage are reminiscent of the images of real-life terrorist attacks that by now are seared into our memory, which unquestionably gives this new opera a greater significance for our troubled times.

Patchett's novel is based on a real event that took place in Peru in 1996: a terrorist attack carried out by the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement during a diplomatic gathering at the vice president's mansion. Patchett reimagines this tragic event through the eyes of those who experienced it, especially the soprano Roxane Coss, the featured performer at this ill-fated event.

The opera, as seen on opening night, comes tantalizingly close to realizing the full operatic potential of this dramatic source material. Act One opens with powerful, dramatic music, massive chords in the brasses enlivened by sudden eruptions of kettledrums. Peruvian composer Jimmy López has written music in many contrasting contemporary styles throughout this work, styles that I found highly interesting and accessible. With the exception of some repetitive-sounding recitatives in the first act, there is almost always something of musical interest going on in this score.

Roxane Coss is portrayed by soprano Danielle de Niese, who makes a dramatic entrance at the top of a curving staircase in the vice president's mansion. De Niese has the charisma and stage presence necessary to portray Roxane, although from where I was sitting, her voice sounded a little thin in her song of welcome, especially since the music here is reminiscent of Richard Strauss' sumptuous opera scores.

Any staging, musical or otherwise, of this story has to make the gradual erosion of the roles of captor and captive believable, to the point where friendships and even romantic relationships blossom like the flowers that adorn the soldier Beatriz's gun in the second act.

Accomplishing this in the timeframe of a single evening is not an easy task. In the scene immediately following the arrival of the terrorists, it just seems too early for the translator Gen Watanabe to be singing of his fascination with the young terrorist Carmen. (Although characters certainly fall for each other just as quickly in actual Bel Canto operas, so perhaps this is intended as an allusion.)

Another subtle, but crucial aspect of this story is the important role that music, especially Roxane's singing, plays in the gradual relaxing of the terrorists' control over the guests and the establishment of a new order inside the mansion, mirrored by the lifting of la garúa, the mist that descends upon them at the beginning of the second act.

It is problematic that Roxane is not given any significant arias after her opening song of welcome, until the very last scene of the opera. She often seems like just another character in the story. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to say who the main character actually is in this opera.

For much of the first act, it is difficult to make out who is singing what solo line, among the jumble of chairs and people that dominate the main room of the vice president's mansion. Such confusion does not help the audience to differentiate between the many different characters in this opera. It could be alleviated somewhat by placing a stronger spotlight on the characters singing solo, or positioning them slightly apart from the crowd.

One of the high points of this score is the Act II aria sung by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo. Selecting a countertenor to sing the role of a Latin-American terrorist seems like an odd choice, but Costanzo is believable as the teenage guerrilla César. He is singing about his former life in the Peruvian jungle, far away from vice-presidential mansions and diplomatic gatherings, while a canopy of trees is projected on the walls behind him. It is one of the opera's most stunningly beautiful moments, both aurally and visually.

There is a scene in the second act that expresses the new state of things particularly well: the generals are playing cards with one of the captives, and Roxane, who overheard César's song, is giving him an impromptu voice lesson. She coaches him in singing an aria from Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore that will be instantly recognizable to most listeners.

Joachim Messner, the Red Cross representative who is their only link to the world outside, arrives and stares in dismay at the scene. The friendly interactions between guerrillas and hostages play out in engaging counterpoint, and Messner soon joins them, expressing his frustration at the delusions that have taken hold of them.

It is a particularly effective scene, which expresses the sea change that has taken place inside the mansion, as well as the undercurrent of approaching tragedy, better than the earlier scenes of interaction between the two groups.

When the four-month standoff finally ends in an explosion of violence, Roxane's final words, written by librettist Nilo Cruz (and not found in the book), eloquently express what has come to pass:

...I have met terror in this land,
But also kindness, humility,
Deliverance and love.
I must more forward and ahead...
I must, I must more forward,
Like the movement of the days...

This final scene, as envisioned by Cruz, is more satisfying than the final pages of the book, which neglect to describe the hostages' reactions to the carnage that ends the story. It is an odd omission on author Ann Patchett's part, given her strong focus elsewhere in the book on how these characters' lives entwined.

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TagsREVIEW, Lyric Opera, Bel Canto, Ann Patchett, Jimmy Lopez, Nilo Cruz, danielle de niese, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Lyric Opera of Chicago

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