Friday, December 11, 2015

World Premiere Opera: Bel Canto at the Lyric

Sometimes art imitates life. That is the case at the Lyric Opera, where the world premiere of Bel Canto has been going on (we attended the show last night.)

The opera is based on the novel by Ann Patchett, which in turn is based on real life happenings in Peru in 1996, when a group of left-wing terrorists held the guests at a high-profile embassy party hostage for nearly four months in the Peruvian capital Lima.  In the novel (and thus the opera) music plays a unifying force-- one of the captives was an opera diva, and it is her music that helps the captives bear their time together.  There's also romance, as the diva, the Japanese industrialist, one of the terrorists, and the industrialists translator end up as couples in a strange and compelling time.  There's also tragedy, triumph, and even a little bit of comedy. (As the terrorists settle in, they want to play soccer, but the diva asks them to keep it down)

Read Bel Canto on Amazon
"It’s been exciting to collaborate in bringing this new work from a bestselling novel to a multifaceted  performing arts experience,” says Sir Andrew Davis, conductor of the opera. “The story is an ideal subject for opera – people in an adverse situation brought together and transformed by music. There are some beautiful arias, including one sung in Japanese. It’s a powerful drama.”

It's also quite timely.  While they were rehearsing Bel Canto,  Paris was attacked and there was a question of whether to continue.

The first act is more like a play with music than an opera.  It sets the scene, and there are a number of plot points that need to be set up.  The sets are beautiful, and there's a stunning transition scene that nearly blew my mind when it happened, as they bring you into the bedrooms/storage closets of the star-crossed lovers.  The second act has more music, although surprisingly less music from the opera diva.

Photo by Todd Rosenberg, provided by Lyric Opera.
I have a couple of bones to pick with the libretto, which goes out of its way to be formal and opaque.  The poetry of the words sung rarely have an amazing turn of phrase or an idea that resounds.  Too often, the story becomes "opera-ish" rather than moving this rather amazing story forward.  As a result, I had a hard time personalizing the story and really making the story come alive.

But there are some stunning theatrical moments to make up for this, including the first few notes of the opera, which feature a blaring tuba (or perhaps a French horn) as the guests are greeted into the party room for what will be the worst disaster of their lives.

Photo by Todd Rosenberg, provided by Lyric Opera.
All of that action takes place behind a hazy screen and projection, giving it a dreamlike feel.  It was very exciting.  If the entire opera had had those kind of visual ideas behind it, I would have absolutely loved it.

The performances were all pretty strong.  There were a number of languages being sung in (including Russian, Japanese, English, Spanish, and a Peruvian dialect)  I was especially impressed with the number of young opera singers of color that were in the show.

Overall it was exciting to see this world premiere (which was the first world premiere by the Lyric in over 10 years)  It was also the composer's first opera.  I'd recommend seeing it.

Photo by Todd Rosenberg, provided by Lyric Opera.
Performance dates are December 7, 10, 12, January 5 and 13 at 7:30 pm; and January 8 and 17 at 2 pm.   Tickets range from $20-$349.

For tickets and information call (312) 827-5600 or go to

Read other reviews of the show:




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