For whatever reason, humankind has an obsession with being trapped in close quarters and the bonds that emerge as a result. An opera based on Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, a film about a group of dinner guests who find themselves inexplicably trapped in a salon, is set to premiere in Salzburg this summer. In 2008, Guerilla Opera presented No Exit, an opera about three people trapped in a room, set to a libretto by Jean-Paul Sartre. We just can’t get enough claustrophobia, and that tendency was seen in the enthusiastic audience that packed into the Civic Opera House to take in the penultimate performance of Bel Canto, a Lyric Opera commission that opened in December 2015.
Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel Bel Canto was inspired by the Japanese Embassy Hostage Crisis during which 14 members of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement stormed the residence of the Japanese Ambassador to Peru during a party and took the affluent guests hostage. Over the course of 126 days, hostages were gradually released until Peruvian soldiers stormed the residence and executed all of the insurgents on April 22, 1997. The opera iteration of the piece, which clings closer to the actual historical events than the novel and details the interactions between hostages and hostage-takers, was commissioned by Lyric Opera in 2010 and spearheaded by none other than Lyric Creative Consultant Renée Fleming. Fleming personally oversaw the selection of a composer, librettist, and aspects of the production.
Bel Canto represents a true coming together on Lyric’s behalf. The company assembled the creative, production, and performance team to create an opera that not only feels truly unique, but also inspiring in its diversity. Nearly everybody onstage gets an opportunity to sing and the same can be said for instruments in the pit. This piece is democratic.
According to Lyric promotional materials, composer Jimmy López worked closely with Lyric musical staff to perfect writing an opera as opposed to chamber music, but such strain never shows in the cohesive piece put on-stage. The music builds to frequent climaxes and is often chillingly atmospheric, but it never forsakes the drama for the sake of a sublime musical moment. López has a good handle on writing for the voice, as evidenced by the ranging vocal registers and singers onstage, and orchestral writing ranges from plush to pulsing – What better textures for an opera about hostages kidnapped in an embassy?
The words were left to Pulitzer Prize-winner Nilo Cruz, and they were left in good hands. The opera is sung alternatingly in eight different languages, among them English, Russian, Japanese, French, Quechua (a native Peruvian language), and Spanish. Not only is the juggling of the languages impressive (the piece never settles on one language – it is all specific to the background of the character and underscores the theme of communication difficulties throughout the piece), but the words are, too, as Cruz makes pleasant poetry at almost every turn. Ensembles in particular are something to behold. Singers sing alternating melodies and languages and the overlap is exquisite. There are definitely parts of the opera that could be tightened up, but López and Cruz are a highly effective pair and the result is a fulfilling night at the opera.
The singing is equally strong. This piece has obviously been the result of significant rehearsal and prep time, and it shows. The entire ensemble – singers, orchestra, and staging – moves like clockwork. In the prima donna role of Roxane Coss, Danielle de Niese treads the role’s unerringly high tessitura with diligence, but she’s a committed actress to boot. Even at the end of the 3-hour evening during which she has quite a lot of singing to do, she failed to waiver and commanded the stage.
Andrew Stenson sang the role of Gen Watanabe, the translator for Katsumi Hosokowa, the raison d’être for the party at the mansion, with a refreshing clearness and sincerity. As Hosokowa himself, Jeongcheol Cha’s sympathetic, lyrical, and resonant bass was a pleasure to hear in his especially committed portrayal. The true scene stealer of the night, though, was J’Nai Bridges, a former Ryan Opera Center member with a beautiful and expressive mezzo that is strong and resonant from the bottom to the top. Her prayer to Saint Rose of Lima was a highlight, if not the highlight, of the entire evening. Rafael Davila’s performance as General Alfredo improved as the night went on, and Jacques Imbrailo was an even-voiced and leveling factor as Joachim Messner, the Red Cross liaison. In the role of César, one of the insurgents with a penchant for music, Anthony Roth Costanzo showed off his no-joke musical instincts and a voice that has only grown more interesting over the years. The smaller parts were all well-served, with standouts William Burden as Rúben Iglesias, Takaoki Onishi as Father Arguedas, and Annie Rosen and Anthony Clark Evans as Edith and Simon Thibault. Bradley Smoak shone as General Benjamín.
Sir Andrew Davis lead an incisive and and coordinated reading of the score which was clearly well-absorbed by the talented members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra. The Lyric Opera Chorus was not only musically solid, but one of the most dramatically involved ensembles I’ve seen in an opera house.
Kevin Newbury’s production is huge, ornate, and involved. The singers move easily within the relatively small confines of David Korins’ spectacular (and massive) set, and the opera offers plenty of moments for directorial nuances that were all capitalized on. The most impressive parts of the staging, though, were the projections by Greg Emetaz, who alternatingly brought the audience to the Scala or to the jungle. So much work is done with projections in opera these days, and it seldom goes for anything. In Bel Canto, though, it certainly measures up. Constance Hoffman’s costumes were colorful and intricate (and indicated a surplus of pantsuits in 1990’s Peru). Duane Schuler’s lighting succeeded in creating that feeling of claustrophobia and isolation.
Bel Canto should have a promising future – The opera is truly solid and there are plenty of roles, opportunities for instrumentalists, and possibilities for a stage director. New opera is what moves the medium forward, and a future that welcomes Bel Canto is a bright future, indeed.
All Photos by Todd Rosenberg