By Nancy Malitz
CHICAGO — It only seems that the Lyric Opera of Chicago ripped the story of its new grand opera Bel Canto straight from today’s headlines. The plot that circles around a violent guerrilla attack and hostage-taking at an iconic location was in fact inspired not by recent events but by a 2001 novel based loosely on a four-month 1996 embassy siege in Peru. The guerrilla group then was called Túpac Amaru, named after the last Inca king, hung by conquistadors, another ancient grudge bringing bloodshed anew.
If the timing of Bel Canto’s Dec. 7 premiere was almost too painful in terms of its plot, then the quiet message of Ann Patchett’s novel of the same name was balancing – that human connections are inevitable once a person looks into another’s eyes, no matter how hopeless the overall tragic arc. By the opera’s end, as the lights came up on the gilded deco splendor of the Civic Opera House, where the bloody shambles of a hostage crisis had made a wreck of the palatial unit set, it was evident that an important new collaboration had announced itself.
The musical and poetic language of 37-year-old Peruvian-American composer Jimmy López and 55-year-old Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz is uniquely forceful. Despite the unrelenting chaos of the action onstage in the opening act, Bel Canto is boldly and clearly structured. The vivid orchestral writing, the muscular punch of López’s ideas, his music’s cross-cultural leaps and saturated colors in tandem with Cruz’s searing imagery, put me in mind of the Lyric’s other important world premiere of recent decades – William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein’s 1999 take on Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, with additional contributions by the playwright.
The production continues through Jan. 17, 2016. That Lyric Opera discovered Bel Canto’s potential early seems obvious, given the distinguished talent in all aspects of the production, especially conductor Andrew Davis, director Kevin Newbury, designer David Korins (whose Hamilton is now on Broadway), and projection designer Greg Emetaz, who turned the unit set into everything from a Peruvian forest to the inside of La Scala. Soprano Danielle de Niese had the starring role in a conscientious and proficient cast.
Patchett’s novel places a fictional American soprano at the center of the action – the world-renowned Roxane Coss, who is paid a royal sum to perform briefly at a party for a Japanese mogul. He has been lured to an unspecified South American country on the irresistible promise of this singer’s birthday tribute. Making the story into a Lyric Opera project was the idea of soprano Renée Fleming, Lyric’s creative consultant, who was understandably infatuated by its potential and has been loyal to its development for five years running.
From Fleming, one draws a straight line to the recruiting of López and Cruz. At a public presentation several days before the first performance, López recalled answering an excited overseas phone call from a friend, telling him to go home and load as much of his music as possible, and as fast as possible, to YouTube, because Fleming was searching for a South American composer to do an opera project. “So I finished my lunch,” he said in a droll allargando that drew laughs, “and I did exactly that.” (Here’s his current Youtube page.)
López and Cruz brought Peru back into the story and set the action in Lima — a nod to the actual 1996 siege if not to specific details. They also trimmed the number of Patchett’s characters and streamlined the plot. But the proportions of this opera are still grand, with two acts in six scenes, a multi-level set, and nineteen named characters. Davis, who is the Lyric’s music director, gave López the option of writing for a chamber ensemble off the bat, on the assumption that it might be easier for other companies to pick up the show if he kept its proportions economical.
But López went with Lyric’s full orchestra (typically 75) and said he’d deal with future whittling as needed – no surprise to anyone who has listened to his recording of Perú negro, which sprawls with pungent colors, pulsating rhythms, and ideas that seem to erupt spontaneously from sources new and ancient. His music is largely tonal with idiosyncratic dissonances loosely drawn from a wide array of jazz and Latin influences. The vast percussion battery includes a thundersheet and a lion’s roar. At one uneasy moment after the initial siege, the pututu resounds, an ancient Andean trumpet fashioned from a conch shell. The instrument’s call seems to threaten from across the mountains and is as piercing as a fog horn.
López’s music of the garúa, a season of dense mist that robs Peru of the sun for months each year, is quite other-worldly, and it sets the tone for the magic realism of the second act, where on all sides the will to ignore logic and the desire for intimacy blossom. The second act is a sequence of chamber-like encounters, easier to assimilate on first hearing than the first act, when the heightened intensity of Cruz’s confident, multi-lingual libretto fairly races by.
Cruz’s images can be enticing, inviting you to mull them, such as the first words sung by the arriving guests, “Is the Inca Empire the Earth’s skin? Are our rainforests the Earth’s hair?” I would happily have hit the slo-mo button leading up to the climactic number in Scene 1, when the staccato of gunshots and tumult turn into a gasping crescendo of recognition by the guests of their newfound state – “We are hostages … we are hostages.”
As the self-absorbed diva Roxane, de Niese’s offhand expressions of entitlement were pitch-perfect. But she also cast a spell on guests and hostage-takers alike as she resumed her diligent daily rehearsals, coached a young guerrilla with a one-in-a-million natural voice, and gradually fell in love. A fine actress, de Niese sang the enormous role superbly, though she strained a bit at the opera’s end. Notably touching were her interludes with the mogul Hosokawa (bass-baritone Jeongcheol Cha in a dignified performance of passion and reserve). Their duet ultimately became a quartet with another pair of lovers as they gave in to the idea of a future that would never be; tenor Andrew Stenson, as the translator Gen, and mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges, as the illiterate Quechua guerrilla Carmen, offered soaring performances.
The list of meaty roles is long. The impressive countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo played the terrorist youth César with the glorious voice that Roxane nurtures. Tenor Rafael Davila and bass-baritone Bradley Smoak crafted hot tension as the guerrilla leaders who often disagree. Tenor William Burden was completely believable as the honorable vice president everyone ignores, as was baritone Jacques Imbrailo as the increasingly frustrated Red Cross liaison. He foresees the true outcome while everyone else prefers their sweet and completely unrealistic fantasy world.
Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago On the Aisle, the founding music critic at USA Today, and a former cultural columnist for The Detroit News. She has written about the arts for a variety of national publications.