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In Review > North America

Bel Canto

Lyric Opera of Chicago

In Review Bel Canto hdl 1215
Kevin Newbury's world-premiere staging of composer Jimmy López and librettist Nilo Cruz's opera, Bel Canto, at Lyric Opera of Chicago
© Andrew Cioffi
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Andrew Stenson and Danielle de Niese, Gen Watanabe and Roxane
© Todd Rosenberg
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Anthony Roth Costanzo as César
© Todd Rosenberg

THE WORLD PREMIERE OF BEL CANTO attracted a dazzling audience to Lyric Opera of Chicago on December 7—as the saying goes, everybody who is anybody was there, including a substantial representation of the national and international arts press, as well as an impressive cadre of A-list singers headed by Renée Fleming, the curator for the project. Composer Jimmy López and librettist Nilo Cruz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, were commissioned by Lyric to create an opera based on the best-selling 2001 novel by Ann Patchett. Bel Canto seems like a natural for the opera stage. Loosely inspired by the Peruvian hostage crisis of 1996 in which several officials were held captive at the Japanese embassy in Lima, the story is centered on an American diva, Roxane Coss, whose presence in the mix has a transformative effect on everyone around her. (Santa Fe Opera had commissioned an opera based on Bel Canto from composer Aaron Jay Kernis for its 2006 season, but that project was cancelled.)

Lyric’s Bel Canto proved to be an adrenaline charged, if rather flawed affair. The orchestration of Act I is quite dense, and is dispatched in an exceedingly aggressive, virtually unrelenting forte throughout—using instrumentation as weaponry, as it were. (That may be the point.) While appropriate for the subject matter, all that intensity began to feed upon itself after half an hour, and bordered on monolithic monotony. Act II was a lengthy series of set pieces that created a meandering impression; Cruz has done a yeoman’s job of condensing Patchett’s narrative into libretto form, but some structural balance might have fostered a more satisfying dramatic trajectory. The terrorist interludes were authentically frightening in director Kevin Newbury’s staging, but matters got a little talky and unfocused elsewhere. 

López is an undeniably exciting composer. The choral work was thrilling and the leading soprano’s final aria takes her up to a dangerously exposed top C. López deftly weaves in bits of Handel and Donizetti, and there is some fascinating writing for brass and percussion; the use of xylophone amidst the bombast is a silvery reminder that beauty exits even in the direst of circumstances.

Danielle de Niese brought her trademark theatricality to Roxane, perhaps without entirely achieving the potent centrality the character demands. The excellent bass-baritone Jeongcheol Cha offered a moving portrait of Katsumi Hosokawa, Roxane’s love interest. Andrew Stenson’s fluid tenor registered beautifully as Hosokawa’s translator, Gen Watanabe. Rafael Davila and Bradley Smoak were the menacing leaders of the MRTA terrorist organization, William Burden the noble Peruvian vice-president. 

The most affecting performance was contributed by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo as the young revolutionary César, who ironically discovers his own musical gift through Roxane and begins vocal study with her. Costanzo was closely seconded by mezzo J’nai Bridges, cast as the wavering terrorist Carmen. Bridges’s emotional delivery of her prayer to Saint Rose of Lima was one of the highlights of the evening. Other standouts included Jacques Imbrailo as the idealistic Red Cross emissary Joachim, Rúni Brattaberg as Fyodorov (whose impossibly low bass aria provided some needed comic relief), and John Irvin as Christopf.

The visuals by David Korins (set) Constance Hoffman (wardrobe) and Duane Schuler (lighting) were complemented by projections from Greg Emetaz that evocatively suggested the private yearnings of various characters, including an image that transported Roxane to the interior of La Scala. Lyric’s ever-reliable fight director Nick Sandys deserves special mention for his visceral handling of the considerable onstage violence.

Lyric’s music director and principal conductor Andrew Davis and his players did a superb job in the pit. Ovations on opening night were tremendous—whether for distinction of product or nobility of effort was debatable. A visibly thrilled Patchett joined the company in the bows. Though a qualified success, Lyric’s Bel Canto—the company’s first new mainstage opera in more than a decade—was an exhilarating event and a compelling reaffirmation of the transcendent power of music. —Mark Thomas Ketterson 

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