Chicago — When a new opera is named Bel Canto, lovers of that golden age of singing and composing will rush to see it—much like fans of a new blockbuster movie will sit in line all night to get into the first showing. However, this is quite another Bel Canto, based on the 2001 novel by Ann Patchett about terrorists in Peru invading an “A List” party and holding all the VIP guests as hostages for months.
Operas based on recent historical events are not the usual fare—Patchett’s novel is based on a real event at the Japanese embassy in Lima in 1996—but there are some exceptions. The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), with music by John Adams and a libretto by Alice Goodman, recounted another hostage standoff, when the Palestinian Front took possession of the cruise ship Achille Lauro. Adams also wrote Nixon in China.
The eagerly awaited English National Opera’s April premiere of Between Worlds, by composer Tansy Davies and librettist Nick Drake takes on the events of 9/11. The brash Anna Nicole is an opera composed by Mark-Anthony Turnage on a libretto by Richard Thomas, and recounts a story about personal destruction, of the sad rise and fall of a Texas-born girl who became a tabloid goddess.
I suppose you could go back to one of the first operas.1643 saw the Vienna premiere of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, based on events that took place in A.D. 64. Rossini wrote historical operas, such as William Tell, and Donizetti wrote some as well, chronicling three Tudor queens: Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux, who was not a queen but was the favorite of one: Elizabeth I.
All that said, guerillas that take hostages to win redress from government corruption and the oppression of the people are very much in the news these days. Such current events are more horrific since most of the terrorists don’t bother taking hostages; they simply fly airliners into buildings, mow innocent people down with high-powered rifles and wear bombs. They have no list of demands, other than world domination, but are only interested in creating panic.
Bel Canto is drawn from the novel with a libretto by the Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Anna in the Tropics. The kaleidoscope musical score is by the American but Peruvian-born composer Jimmy López, who has worked locally with the Fort Worth Symphony and its Peruvian music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya. Cruz’s taut dramatic script successfully condenses the novel, only making some minor changes to the plot. He allows everyone to speak in their own language, including Spanish, English, Japanese, Russian and even the indigenous Peruvian language of Quechua. (With English supertitles.)
López’s music ranges from white-hot complexities to dreamy neo-romantic soaring lines. His orchestration, but not his musical vocabulary, owes a lot to John Williams’ movie scores with flashing scales in the strings, dense harmonic thickets and icing offered by pitched percussion, such as orchestral bells.
The first and second acts are very different: the first is exciting while the second is reflective. This creates a dichotomy for the audience in that the second act feels slow, even though it is properly paced. There is nothing to be done about this but it will be less and less noticeable as the score becomes familiar to the audiences in subsequent productions.
The overall effect is dramatically and musically engaging, but a little uneven in that he pushes the edges of whatever he is writing at the time, blurring his compositional voice. The romantic passages really swell to great heights, the music for the tense military encounters is overly primal and ferocious, and he is banal when things are quiet. All those little details neither detract nor affect the grand sweep of the score. Bel Canto carries the audience along from its quiet beginning to its tragic ending.
The novel Bel Canto takes place in an unspecified capital of an undisclosed South American Country (uSAC). In the opera it is Lima, Peru. The situation the opera sets up creates a perfect target for terrorists who want something, namely the release of jailed comrades and the return of stolen land as well as hope for the future.
The guest of honor is a real “get,” and the government is throwing him a birthday party at the luxurious home of the Vice President, played by tenor William Burden. This special guest is Katsumi Hosokawa, played by Jeongcheol Cha. He is the head of the largest corporation in Japan.
The Vice President of Peru went to all this trouble to get some face time with the tycoon for the express purpose of having him build a factory in town to save the faltering economy. Further, some research into Hosokawa netted a very usable lure in that Roxane Coss, the leading soprano of the day, entrances him. (Think Renée Fleming, who was involved with the project from the start). The fact that Coss is to sing a private recital in honor of his birthday assures his attendance.
All is going swimmingly for a short span of time. Roxane Coss, impeccably portrayed by Danielle de Niese, sings magnificently and Hosokawa is entranced, as is everyone else (including the audience). You can see the budding romance between the singer and the magnate, which flowers into a deep and transformative love as the opera progresses.
When Coss finishes, the lights go out momentarily, which cannot be a positive development. Indeed, it isn’t. Terrorists charge in, through every window and door, waving machine guns menacingly and snarling commands. The stylish party transforms to shockingly scary in a second. The leader of the idealistic group of impecunious insurrectionists, General Alfredo, played with brazen bravura and braggadocio by tenor Rafael Davila, gives out his demands. When the government rebuffs everything in their manifesto, both sides settle in for a long standoff.
The Red Coss sends in Joachim Messner, a mediator. He is played with meek assurance but tinged with hopelessness by baritone Jacques Imbrailo. By the second act, Stockholm syndrome sets in and everything becomes confusing. A second romance springs up between a hardened terrorist, Carmen (brought to life by the impressive mezzo J’nai Bridges) and Hosokawa’s erstwhile translator and major domo, Gen Watanabe (played by the solid-voiced tenor Andrew Stenson).
Even under such duress, Coss cannot help but recognize some real talent in César, the adolescent revolutionary played by the extraordinary countertenor Anthony Ross Costanzo (recently seen in the Dallas Opera’s world premiere Great Scott). He is an astonishing talent, vocally and dramatically. No wonder Coss is impressed with his abilities. He becomes her voice student and, like the role played by Coss, his singing acts like a balm for the claustrophobic situation.
Other singers in this exceptionally strong cast are equally impressive. Bass Rúni Brattaberg brings humorous bluster to his portrayal of Fyodorov, a Russian diplomat. Takaoki Onishi brought some hard-to-find calm to his portrayal of the young priest, Father Arguedas.
With all this Kumbaya going on, only General Alfrado remains the steadfast reactionary and he holds out until he senses the inevitable arrival of the the end. When he realizes that all is lost, he lets his soldiers go out on the yard for the first time to play soccer, rather than in the living room. The government SWAT team immediately moves in to the house and shoots at everyone.
All of the guerillas are killed, as is Hosokawa in error (collateral damage, as we hear nowadays). Because most everyone has bonded during their long ordeal, there is no relief at the rescue, only grief for the deaths of the well intentioned, but misguided, revolutionaries. Coss is devastated by Hosokawa’s death and commits herself to going on for music’s sake.
David Korins’ set captures the elegance that befits the residence of a Vice President. There are two massive staircases that descend from upper levels of the mansion. A gigantic crystal chandelier hangs over everything like an all-seeing eye. The set changed to reflect the constantly changing dramatic situation, thanks to Duane Schuler’s lighting and Greg Emetaz’s projections, which even takes us to the stars.
Constance Hoffman’s costumes hit the mark as well, underlining the two worlds that collide. There is the elegant and impeccable cocktail attire of the guests that compares to the military-style and slightly dog-eared uniforms of the revolutionaries. Thus, the costumes tell the back-story of the characters that goes on before the opera starts.
Kevin Newbury’s direction keeps the action front and center without ever calling attention to itself. The stage is never static nor is it busy. He handles the opera’s major relationships, two sets of unlikely lovers, with touching sensitivity.
One set of newly hooked-up lovers, Carmen and Gen Watanabe has to meet surreptitiously in the kitchen. The co-mingling of a hostage and a revolutionary is the ultimate betrayal of both sides of the drama. However, they come to symbolize the resolution the two groups manage to achieve before it all ends tragically.
The other pair is Hosokawa, who is married back in Japan, and Coss. Hosokawa was in love with her, or the idea of her, before he met her and Coss is relieved to escape from her diva persona and become a real woman. Their tryst takes place in a private bedroom on the second floor as befits their rank. Their duet is a truly beautiful moment, but is also strange. Hosokawa is pouring his heart out to Coss in Japanese and she sending her impassioned prostrations of love back to him in English—and neither understands the other.
These two relationships eventually grow into a quartet: the musical highlight of the score. This merging of different trains of thought is something that opera can do better than any other dramatic medium.
Music Director Andrew Davis is simply amazing as he leads the responsive large cast and orchestra through the complex score. He never lets the forward motion stop, or even pause for a breather. He is in complete control of the forces arrayed in front of him, but he gives them the freedom to be expressive within the parameters he sets.
Like all new operas, Bel Canto would benefit from some minor trimming here and there and some thinning of the orchestration. Also, some of the over-the-top moments could be tamed. However overall, Bel Canto has to be considered a major success for the cast, the composer, librettist, the entire creative team and especially the Lyric Opera of Chicago.