PostHeaderIcon New Opera Triumphs Over Terror

I remember sitting in the lobby of Lyric Opera over three years ago to hear the exciting news that Lyric had commissioned Jimmy Lopez (composer) and Nilo Cruz (librettist) to adapt Ann Patchett’s best-selling novel, “Bel Canto”, into an opera. General Director Anthony Freud and Lyric Creative Consultant, Renee Fleming, were beaming over the announcement. This would be Lyric’s first world premiere since William Bolcom’s “A Wedding” in 2004, While Patchett’s book deals with an invasion at the Peruvian Embassy by local guerrillas in 1996, that background seemed long ago and far away.

Yet last month’s Paris massacre and the San Bernadino terrorist attack five days prior to the opera’s world premiere suddenly turned yesterday’s news into today’s headlines. Lyric went into damage control mode to reassure patrons. Prior to the premiere, Freud drafted a letter to be inserted in all performance programs. It called the contemporary opera’s theme “shockingly topical” but defended Lyric’s artistic choice: “I believe that opera is a relevant art form and must not shy away from dealing with contemporary and disturbing subjects. Hopefully, we can play a part in stimulating thought, discourse and debate.” Discussions will be held with the audience at all performances.

The world premiere of “Bel Canto” proceeded and it is a handsome production with a winning ensemble

Bel Canto World Premiere

Bel Canto World Premiere

cast, headed by Danielle de Niese, playing Roxanne Coss, a  world-renowned soprano hired for a birthday celebration honoring Katsumi Hosokawa, a Japanese executive at the home of Peru’s vice president.

In the middle of her singing, Tupac Amaru guerrillas burst into the mansion and take the guests hostage. A Red Cross representative tries to negotiate their release but, when the government refuses the guerrillas’ demands, a four-month siege ensues.

Danielle de Niese

Danielle de Niese

The long first act is briskly paced and full of incident. Director Kevin Newbury handles the choreographic challenge of a stage full of reception guests and the ensuing tumult with skilled command. A romantic element–the budding attractions between Hosokawa and Roxanne plus Gen, Hosokawa’s translator and Carmen, one of the terrorists–is introduced. The first act ends with Roxanne’s accompanist being killed as he rushes to save her from terrorist commander General Alfredo’s manhandling.

While the first act is replete with motion, the second suffers, by contrast, from a listless spell, brought on by the Peruvian fog known as garua. As one day drips into the next, a Stockholm-like atmosphere envelops captors and hostages. Hosokawa plays chess with a soldier, General Alfredo reads news accounts and one hostage hangs linen on a clothesline. A Russian diplomat awkwardly professes his love for painting and the lovely Roxanne.

 © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2015

GeneralAlfredo,               Rebel Commander
© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2015

Cruz’s lyrical adaptation, full of poetic imagery, could have benefitted from some editing or a shot of more drama here. While the languor of their captivity is perfectly captured and appropriate, the opera stalls until late in the act with riveting arias by two terrorists (mezzo J’Nai Bridges and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo). This is followed by the act’s most effective moment, a striking tableau of love duets by Hosokawa (ably sung by Jeongcheol Cha) and Roxanne on stage left alongside Cesar and Gen Watanabe on stage right.

When government soldiers eventually storm the mansion with guns blazing and even splattered blood onstage,  I saw audience members flinch. Such a reaction, aided by greater distance from the San Bernadino tragedy, will probably not be repeated at the January performances.

The opera, even with its uneven patches, succeeds in combining gripping theater and an appealing score with Hollywood-sounding crescendos. It deserves an extended life with future productions in opera houses worldwide. All the elements–an accomplished score, riveting contemporary story, fine cast, handsome production values–carry it past the finish line. It must rank as Lyric’s most successful commission in recent memory.

“Bel Canto” will have four more performances when Lyric resumes in January. The first is on Tuesday, January 5. I urge you to go and see this highly theatrical work for yourself. For tickets and more information, visit www.lyricopera.org.

 

 

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