Thursday, December 17, 2015

Opera review: The world premiere of "Bel Canto" suffers from musical and dramatic overload at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Act I opening
Photo: Andrew Cioffi
I haven't read Ann Patchett's popular novel "Bel Canto". So I have no idea whether the musical and theatrical overload of the opera version, which is currently having its world premiere at Lyric Opera of Chicago, reflects the style of Ms. Patchett's writing or that of composer Jimmy López and librettist Nilo Cruz.

Danielle de Niese
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Although generally well received by the audience the night we saw it, the sheer excess of the work had the unfortunate effect of calling attention to its own inventiveness at the expense of the narrative and distancing me from what should have been a compelling story. If felt self-indulgent, as though the creators were more interested in showing off their considerable gifts than in communicating with an audience.

Based on a real-life incident in Peru in 1996, in which guests at the Japanese ambassador's mansion were held hostage by terrorists for four months, "Bel Canto" changes the ambassador to the CEO of a Japanese electronics firm and adds the character of Roxane Coss, an American soprano whose music casts a healing spell on hostages and guerrillas alike. As in the real incident, the hostage taking drags on for months until the Peruvian army raids the house.

By the time that happens, in the operatic version of the story, insurgents and hostages have some to see each other less as opponents and more as fellow sufferers at the hands of forces beyond their control. When the Peruvian army bursts in at the end of the opera, they blast away at everyone in sight, with a callous disregard for "collateral damage" that leaves little doubt as to who the real villains of the piece might be.

Andrew Stenson and Danielle de Niese
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
This ought to be pretty powerful stuff. After all, despite the fact that Americans are as likely to be crushed to death by furniture as killed by terrorists, asymmetric warfare has been very much in the news lately, so this story should have real resonance.

Indeed, the opera has moments of real dramatic impact, especially in the more nuanced second act, and the gradual dramatic transformation of the guerrilla leaders from slogan-spouting bullies to sympathetic freedom fighters is nicely done. But for much of its three-hour length, "Bel Canto" did a better job of pushing me away than drawing me in.

Part of the problem is the sheer decibel level of Mr. López's score, which sounds like Richard Strauss filtered through John Adams. There are moments of genuine beauty, especially in the third act, but for the most part the score feels like a musical assault vehicle. I felt that the periodic flights of poetic fancy in Mr. Cruz's libretto, beautifully written though they were, had a distancing effect as well. Often delivered as soliloquies, I thought they tended to stop the action cold, even if they did offer valuable insights into their characters' thinking.

Anthony Roth Costanzo
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Perhaps the biggest issue for me, though, is the rather artificial staging by director Kevin Newbury. In his "Anna Bolena" for Lyric last year and his "Eugene Onegin" for Opera Theatre of St. Louis back in 2010, I was struck by his tendency to place his principals in static poses, facing downstage, and generally adopting cliché operatic attitudes. There's a great deal of that in "Bel Canto", with characters nearly always singing towards the audience rather than interacting with each other. Even in the intimate third act love scene in which Roxane and the Japanese CEO Kasumi Hosokawa finally consummate the love affair that has been brewing for months, the characters have virtually no contact with each other until the final clinch.

That said, there are many outstanding performances in this cast, and that goes a long way towards making up for the production's other issues. Soprano Danielle de Niese does truly heroic work as Roxane Coss, a role that requires great vocal and dramatic range. So does tenor Andrew Stenson as Gen Watanabe, Hosokawa's translator, whose doomed love affair with the guerrilla Carmen (mezzo J'Nai Bridges in another compelling performance) is the "downstairs" parallel to the "upstairs" romance between his boss and Roxane.

Jeongcheol Cha
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Tenor Rafael Davila is very effective in the ultimately tragic role of the guerrilla leader, General Alfredo, and Korean bass-baritone Jeongcheol Cha makes Hosokawa a very sympathetic character, struggling with the language barrier that prevents him from expressing his love for Roxane. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo shines in the small but heartbreaking role of the fighter César, whose voice flowers under Roxane's tutelage, only to be cut short by a soldier's bullet. Bass Rúni Brattaberg also makes a strong impression in the cameo role of the Russian ambassador Fyodorov, although his odd comic relief scene late in the opera feels tacked-on and irrelevant.

In fact, there's really not a single weak link in this 24-member cast (19 singers and five non-singing actors), which is very much to Lyric Opera's credit. "Bel Canto" is a big piece that requires a deep talent pool, but Lyric is clearly up to the challenge.

David Korins's big, realistic, multi-level set is impressive, but it takes up so much room that action is mostly forced downstage. That makes for some cramped and confusing stage pictures and sometimes makes it difficult to tell who is singing when the entire cast is on stage (as it often is).

As the siege wears on, the fighters play socccer
Photo: Andrew Cioffi
Mr. López's score sounds highly demanding, but under the baton of Lyic's music director Sir Andrew Davis the orchestra gave a powerful account of it. The brass and percussion sections, in particular, got quite a workout. Even at its noisiest, though, the orchestra never overwhelmed the singers, which is a tribute to Mr. Davis's skill.

One interesting final note: projected English text has now become so ubiquitous in opera houses that Mr. Cruz apparently felt comfortable creating a libretto in which characters often sang in their native languages, secure in the knowledge that it would all be translated in the end. Eight different languages are heard here including Japanese, Latin, and Quechua, an Amerind language spoken in Peru and neighboring countries. It's an illustration of how technology has changed the way opera is done these days.

Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of "Bel Canto" continues through January 17th at Chicago's magnificent Civic Opera House. For more information:

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