Cher Public

Dangerous liaisons

There was a certain frisson in the air entering Chicago Lyric Opera last night, and not just in anticipation of attending the world premiere of a new work by Jimmy Lopez (music) and Nilo Cruz (libretto), Bel Canto.  Particularly for those who read Ann Patchett’s splendid novel on which the opera is based, there was a certain sense of danger at attending an opera about a terrorist attack and hostage-taking.  

Lyric General Director Anthony Freud wisely wrote a letter as a program insert, calling the opera “startlingly topical” in the light of recent, almost daily instances of indiscriminate violence.  His letter, as well as a notice on the supertitle screen, warned the audience that there would be loud theatrical gunfire in the piece.

And indeed there was.  But what transpired on stage for the next three hours was a deeply moving, deeply human new work of musical art.  Lopez has written a magnificent score, with lush arias surrounded by a dramatic tension in the music that never lets up.

Beginning with the ominous overture, Lopez’ music reflects perfectly the action and the characters of the opera.  Cruz’ libretto is as poetic as Patchett’s language in the novel, and delineates character with skill and beauty.  The Embassy setting allows the characters to sing in their national languages: there are moments of singing in: Spanish, English, Japanese, Russian, German, French, Latin, and Quechua!

Set in the Japanese embassy to Peru where dignitaries are gathering to celebrate the birthday of a Japanese industrialist and hear a concert by his favorite singer Roxane Coss, the story contrasts the violent takeover of the embassy by Tupac Amaru guerrilla fighters with the delicate relationships that develop during the long siege between hostages and their captors.

It’s a love story surrounded by political violence.  The opera begins with cruelty and terror, and develops into a fascinating study of how aspects of our common humanity can shine through even in the most desperate circumstances.

Lyric has assembled a large cast of mostly young singers, and they are all given their moment to shine.  J’Nai Bridges stands out as the tender hearted guerrilla Carmen, acting with great sensitivity and singing the most beautiful aria of the evening, the prayer “Santa Rosa de Lima”.

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo is very moving as the young guerrilla Cesar, singing a haunting tale of his life in the jungle and the day he discovered his singing voice.  Rafael Davila is convincing as the guerrilla leader General Alfredo, both in his sudden flashes of temper and his occasional gentleness.

As the industrialist Hosokawa and his interpreter Watanabe, both Jeongcheol Cha and Andrew Stenson provide fine singing and great dignity.  Cha is particularly ardent in his romantic wooing of the American singer, and Stenson is delightful in his youthful enthusiasm in wooing Carmen.

I was also quite taken by the Jacques Imbrailo as the young Red Cross worker Joachim Messner, who serves as a negotiator between the guerillas and the government soldiers outside.  He sings and acts with great intelligence and passion, and has a harrowing scene when he begins to panic that the situation will end in violence.

The role of the American diva Roxane Cross is pivotal, and here we find a miscast Danielle deNiese.  Ms. deNiese terribly overplays the diva “behavior” in the first act, drawing laughs when we should fear for her safety as the insurgents attack.  In Patchett’s novel, the character is infused with dignity.  Here, she just seems fussy.

Now, to her credit, deNiese goes deeper as the opera moves to the second act, and is excellent in her “bedroom scene” with Hosokawa.  She also offers a fully committed, emotionally varied final scene over the body of her murdered lover, though a couple of high notes went awry.  Still, this was an impressive final monologue.

Another weak scene, which frankly should be cut, is the awkward attempt by the Russian diplomat (Runi Brattaberg) to woo Roxane.  The singer doesn’t have the low notes for the role, and the scene falls flat and simply seems a lame attempt at comic relief.

Sir Andrew Davis conducts superbly—the best work I’ve heard from him in years.  He understands that the powerful tension in the score must never waiver, and we are on the edge of our seats through much of the second and all of the first act.  The Lyric Opera orchestra and chorus do exemplary work.

The gorgeous set  by David Korins is immensely enhanced by Greg Emetaz’ superb, moving projections.  Costume designer Constance Hoffman does lovely work, especially with the embassy guests and with Roxane’s shimmering blue gown.  And finally, Stage Director Kevin Newbury has done a superb job in this extremely complicated staging.

There are almost always dozens of characters on the stage, and everyone clearly knows their movement pattern and their character’s purpose.  Newbury’s clear and insightful direction keeps the story moving fluidly and keeps the dramatic tension taut.  Nick Sandys’ fight direction is also excellent.  The physical reactions of the shooting victims are shockingly realistic.

I think this is finally a contemporary opera with “legs.”  Rumor has it that it will be recorded for PBS’s Great Performances series.  I am anxious to experience this fine work again.

  • Evenhanded


    Thank you for this excellent, detailed review. I look forward to hearing the piece via radio or PBS sometime soon.

    • Lilith

      Performances will be recorded for PBS’ Great Performances program, though, as far as I know, no broadcast date has been determined.

      WFMT did, as usual, broadcast the opening night performance. No idea if there are any plans for a re-broadcast in the near future.

  • chicagoing

    Interesting to note that this world premiere took place on the same evening that Milan opened it’s opera season under increased security with the La Scala theatre “listed as a possible terrorist target”.

    • Baltsamic Vinaigrette

      La Scala may require security to keep an eye on a possible inside job:

      • Quanto Painy Fakor

        But it really sounds like Chailly’s voice calling “Asshole!” after the English “really, Maestro!”

        • moi

          Eyewitnesses say , that it was Moshe Leiser cursing…
          and I doubt that ‘asshole’ is the first word coming out from an upset italian maestro.
          Chailly after closed the door of his dressing room and did not attend the party.
          Enough of that episode

  • chicagoing

    From the Chicago Tribune review, “Curiously absent from the prolonged ovations that greeted the large cast, Lopez, Cruz, conductor Andrew Davis and director Kevin Newbury and his design team at the end of the three-hour performance was soprano Renee Fleming, the curator and driving force behind “Bel Canto…”

  • SilvestriWoman

    Thanks for the wonderful review, Henson! I now look forward to seeing this right after New Year’s. It also looks like Imbrailo had a great career as a boy soprano.

    • SilvestriWoman


  • chicagoing

    It is standard practice that LOC goes dark over the holidays, which is unfortunate if you are an out- of- towner visiting over the holidays or a resident with free time looking for something special to do at that time. I am certain it is very beneficial to (and much appreciated by) the players however. What I always found curious though is that there is usually one production which straddles this divide. This year it is Bel Canto. After premiering on Monday with a second performance on Thursday and another on Saturday (an unusually compact three performances over six days) the production will then go on hiatus for three weeks and conclude with four performances in early January. Wouldn’t it make more sense to keep the momentum of this world premiere going? Perhaps they thought the time could be used to make some tweaks if needed? Will they need to reconvene and brush up before resuming performances or would a new production have been so thoroughly rehearsed that this would not be necessary?

  • Henson Keys: Thank you for this great review which I missed when first posted. Nice to know that the LOC has a solid success on its hands. I recently rewatched the excellent Glynbourne Billy Budd which featured Jacques Imbrailo in the title role. Glad to know he’s continuing to do good work.