Taut, timely Bel Canto receives long-awaited Lyric premiere

Andrew Stenson_Danielle de Niese_BEL CANTO_LYR151204_0655_c.Todd Rosenberg

Unlikely friends Gen (Andrew Stenson) and Roxana (Danielle de Niese) are brought together by a hair-raising hostage situation.  © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2015

*WARNING: Spoilers ahead. Read at your own discretion.*

Before the premiere performance of Bel Canto, I was wandering around the grand lobby of the Civic Opera House when I ran into some friends from WFMT. They were asking patrons why they were attending the performance, then collecting soundbites from their responses for a segment.

My answer was easy: When you have the opportunity to attend the world premiere of an opera, you go—especially a show as anticipated as Bel Canto. Billed as a dream collaboration between Lyric Opera music director Sir Andrew Davis, creative consultant Renée Fleming, director Kevin Newbury, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz, and upstart composer Jimmy López, Bel Canto would also be the notoriously conservative Lyric’s first commission in more than a decade.

In the end, Bel Canto didn’t quite meet its hype—how could it’ve? But it was certainly memorable, not to mention a laudable showing for López and Cruz, who made their first foray into opera with the commission.

Based on Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel of the same name, Bel Canto opens with a soirée at the Peruvian vice president’s mansion, celebrating the birthday of Katsumi Hosokawa (Jeongcheol Cha), the CEO of a Japanese electronics company. The party draws a crowd of mostly European elites who seem to regard the politically tumultuous Peru with suspicion, even contempt. “Just keep your gun handy,” one dignitary advises another, only half-joking.

Unbeknownst to Hosokawa, his favorite singer, American diva Roxane Coss (Danielle de Niese), has been invited to give a surprise recital for him. She sings for those assembled, and as she sings, Hosokawa becomes enamored with her.

Then—pandemonium. Gun-slinging guerrilla fighters with the Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru (MRTA) burst through the doors. Their leader, General Alfredo (sung commandingly by the excellent Rafael Davila) barks at the crowd to get on the floor. The attendees—who’d been enjoying the luxuries of upper-society life only a few minutes earlier—have no choice but to obey.

Though its opening scene makes this more explicit than the rest of the opera, in reality, Bel Canto is more about power play and class struggle than love, redemption through song, or whatever other banalities Lyric’s marketing team has used to advertise this production. Each gunshot sent chills down my spine; in them, I could hear the reverberations of horrific, real-life acts of terror which made headlines this year.

Yet, we can’t quite bring ourselves to vilify Bel Canto‘s terrorists. Carmen (J’nai Bridges) is the first of the terrorists to treat the hostages with dignity, turning to Hosokawa’s interpreter Gen (Andrew Stenson) for tutelage and, eventually, succor. Ultimately, all of the terrorists are similarly humanized through their relationships with the captives. Even the formidable General softens. “I only want a country where the poor matter as much as the rich,” he plaintively sings in Act II.

It suffices to say that, despite overwrought moments—no doubt traceable to its source material—Bel Canto impresses with its relentless dramatic tension. Even in moments of relative repose, the action onstage crackles with suspense. Though the bonds between captor and captive are never fully fleshed out, that doesn’t stop us from having to swallow the lumps in our throat during the opera’s final scene, in which troops storm the compound and indiscriminately kill the guerrilla fighters.

Contrary to expectations, López’s score was, to my ears, Bel Canto‘s greatest inconsistency. I’m a fan of López’s orchestral works, brilliantly showcased on his Harmonia Mundi release earlier this year, and recognized López’s idiosyncratic brand of brashness in the overture—wailing brass, thundering percussion and all. But as the opera wears on, moments of comparable potency seem emotionally lopsided. Conflict abounds in Bel Canto—accompanied by music so fitful it’s practically cinematic—but, as the opera’s promotional material cloyingly reminds us, so does sentimentality. 

Unfortunately, López seemed lost in gentler emotional territory. The audience is presumably meant to be just as enraptured by Roxane’s voice during her recital as the characters are onstage, but the impact and poignancy just isn’t there. It’s also missing in the simultaneous love scene between Roxane and Hosokawa and Gen and Carmen, which—partly because of the libretto and lack of convincing character development—borders on the trite.

Tenderness finally touches down in Act II with the introduction of César (Anthony Roth Costanzo), a young guerrilla soldier with an angelic countertenor voice. Roxane recognizes César’s talent when she hears him nostalgically singing about his home in the jungle, and takes him on as her protégé. In retrospect, I think this student-teacher relationship was far more interesting than the Roxane/Hosokawa and Gen/Carmen subplots carried over from Patchett’s novel, and it ends up being the source of some of the opera’s most moving scenes. One only wishes their relationship had been introduced earlier in the opera, and thus given a chance to develop more.

In some ways, Lyric’s seamless execution redeemed the opera’s musical and textual hiccups. The set was a highlight: Impeccably white and almost regal, the interior of the vice president’s residence becomes steadily disheveled, as though stained by the events which transpire inside it. Crude tally marks proliferate on the wall, enumerating the captives’ days in isolation. But the whiteness of the set also acts as a projection screen, transforming it into a rainforest, then an opera house. Though physically trapped, the characters are transported elsewhere through their memories, and the projection aspect captures this quite well.

Roxane dreams of simpler times, and the vice president's mansion dreams along with her.

Roxane dreams of simpler times, and the vice president’s mansion dreams along with her.  © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2015

Though the plot is entirely confined within the walls of the mansion, nature remains an omnipresent, if perplexing motif throughout. Cruz’s libretto is riddled with rapturous descriptions of Peru’s landscape, and la garúa—a foreboding mist which Peruvians consider to be semi-sacred—plays an almost characterized role in Act II. In scenes like César’s, the symbolism seemed appropriate, but in others, it didn’t seem to bear much on the plot, or was clumsily expressed in the libretto—another frustrating inconsistency.

But these are mere quibbles. On the whole, Bel Canto is certainly worth seeing, if only for its affecting, apocalyptic final scene: After the brutal reclamation of the residence by government soldiers, Roxane is left onstage, trembling, as the opera’s beautiful set breaks away in chunks behind her.

Earlier in the opera, the captors and captives alike were baffled by their newfound friendship. “Can a room become a country?” they’d asked. As the vice president’s mansion fractures behind Roxane, the answer seems cloudy—not unlike the set itself, which becomes shrouded by la garúa once more as the curtain falls.

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