Bel Canto: A New Opera, All-Too Topical


United StatesUnited States Jimmy Lopez, Bel Canto: Soloists, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Civic Opera House, Chicago. 12.12.2015 (JLZ)

J'nai Bridges, Jeongcheol Cha, and Danielle de Niese in 'Bel Canto' at Chicago Lyric Opera (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)
J’nai Bridges, Jeongcheol Cha, and Danielle de Niese in ‘Bel Canto’ at Chicago Lyric Opera (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

Roxanne Coss: Danielle de Niese
Carmen: J’nai Bridges
Hosokawa: Jeongcheol Cha
Gen Watanabe: Andrew Stenson
General Alfredo: Rafael Davila
Joachim Messner: Jacques Imbrilo
Ruben Iglesias: William Burden
Cesar: Anthony Roth Costanzo
Fyodorov: Rúni Brattaberg
Christopf: John Irvin
Simon Thibault: Anthony Clark Evans
Edith Thibault: Annie
Father Arguedas: Takaoki Onishi
General Benjamin: Bradley Smoak
Ismael: Alec Carlson
Beatriz: Diana Newman
Spanish Ambassador to Peru: Hoss Brock
Soldier of the Peruvian Army: Matthew Carroll


Director: Kevin Newbury
Set Designer: David Korins
Costume Designer: Constance Hoffmann
Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler
Projection Designer: Greg Emetaz
Project Curator: Renee Fleming
Chorus Master: Michael Black
Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis


Commissioned by Lyric Opera of Chicago, and adapted from Ann Patchett’s PEN/Faulkner Prize-winning novel, Bel Canto is an provocative new opera that addresses current global issues. Like the book, the opera deals with a hostage-taking by terrorists, a violent situation with particular relevance in late 2015. Yet the work does not dwell exclusively on the act of terrorism. At the core are the stories of the individuals caught in the violence, vividly brought to life in the score by Peruvian-born composer Jimmy Lopez. Bel Canto has all the elements of twentieth-century Zeitoper in its use of contemporary events (as John Adams did with Doctor Atomic), combined with the musical excitement of nineteenth-century “rescue operas.” Lopez has created a unique whole that works musically and dramatically.

Lopez’s style is eclectic, moving between dissonant tonality, richly textured post-romanticism, and evocations of ethnic music. The prelude gives a sense of this, with opening brass sonorities yielding to more lyrical textures, and concluding with tense music that foreshadows later scenes. These dissonances give way to a chorus that places the action in Peru (one detail in which the libretto departs from the novel, which uses an unnamed South American country), and sets the stage for the command performance of the international diva Roxanne Coss. Lopez wisely avoids quoting all the music listed in Patchett’s novel, and instead, using a hyper-romantic style that takes on new meanings when it reappears. Lopez shifts tone deftly, sometimes using percussion to make the transitions. The music clearly engaged the audience, which sometimes interrupted the action with spontaneous applause.

For the most part, though, Nilo Cruz’s libretto made good use of Patchett’s rich prose. Those familiar with the novel will find certain important passages compressed effectively, yet the libretto takes on a different character to bring out the harsher aspects of the narrative. There is graphic violence—an element that is unavoidable in a faithful rendering of the source, but a disturbing one nonetheless. Some of the language is harsh, with homophobic epithets that seem unnecessary in the larger sense. Some of the dialogue’s ironic comments (about the diva feeling self-important because she can sing) seemed humorous in the delivery, when the effect should have been otherwise.

Carmen’s character is deftly etched in Lopez’s music, and J’nai Bridges delivered it exquisitely, her rich mezzo commanding admirable attention. Likewise, Danielle de Niese stylishly created Roxanne, showing both bravura and frustration, and her duet with Jongcheol Cha was sensitively played.

The other roles were sung well. Andrew Stenson used his resonant voice to bring Gen Watanabe to life, and used his voice to excellent effect in the love duet with J’nai Bridges in the second act.  Rafael Davila played General Alfredo realistically, but Jacques Imbrailo was sometimes affected as Joachim Messner, the representative from the Red Cross. It is a shame that William Burden did not have more to perform in the role of the Peruvian Vice President Ruben Iglesias. The latter role, like John Irvin’s accompanist Christopf, is limited by the source. Yet it was an inspiration to have countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo play Cesar, the young revolutionary whose voice helps to break the social and cultural barriers between the terrorists and their captives.

Beyond Cruz’s transformation of Patchett’s novel to a distinctive libretto, Kevin Newbury’s masterful staging gave the performance dramatic motion, and the sets, costumes and lighting all come together cohesively. This topical, ensemble opera raises questions about terrorism and the nature of violence, and the operatic medium will hopefully prompt discussions that are needed at various levels in our culture.

James L. Zychowicz

Note: Bel Canto will be taped for broadcast on PBS’s Great Performances.





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