Monday, December 21, 2015

Review of The Lyric Opera's Bel Canto

The set of the Chicago Lyric Opera's Bel Canto.
In 2012, work began on the impressive challenge of turning Ann Patchett's novel Bel Canto into a staged, modern opera. Now Bel Canto is playing at the Lyric Opera through January 17, 2016. I heard about it at the beginning of December and, even though I'd never been to the opera, I had to buy a ticket. Patchett's Bel Canto is one of my favorite books and I've now read it four times. It reads as richly as one long poem with the focus on relationships and character development rather than shoot-em-up action. So, at the age of 49, I attended an opera for the first time, hoping to see the lyricism and humor of the novel, which shows the unpredictable alliances that form when you give people a chance to bond. The following review of the opera will make more sense to those who have read Bel Canto, but I offer it to anyone who is considering going to the Lyric's production.

I saw the performance on Thursday, December 10th. I didn't like it. I guess because opera is so visual, the libretto focuses on the action, which includes gun violence, fighting and yelling. I longed to witness the characterizations of Gen, Carmen, Rubén, Thibault and Ismael. Instead, we saw the rebels and hostages as two groups in conflict with each other rather than as individuals. In the novel, General Alfredo is one of an ensemble of characters. In the opera, his bellowings and proclamations elevated him to a major character, and not an interesting one. At one point, the women hostages who have been released begin to protest loudly outside the mansion, demanding the freedom of their men. What was the point of this? It doesn't happen in the novel and kept the focus on the kidnapping instead of the fascinating details of the dynamics within the house.

Also disappointing was the opera singer Roxane's characterization as a spoiled, entitled prima donna. I don't know why they did that to her opera character when in the novel Roxane shows admirable consideration of others from the beginning. The literary Roxane has an unusually strong ego and sense of self, but she doesn't come across with the shrillness of the Lyric's production.

Speaking of shrillness, I wasn't impressed with the voice of Danielle de Niese, the woman who played Roxane. I liked J'Nai Bridges/Carmen's voice much better. I also didn't hear much melody that appealed to me and that I'd want to carry around in my head. The only times when I felt I was hearing a true song was when the Russian sang, when Cesar sang and the first time Gen, Carmen, Hosokawa and Roxane sang together. Besides that, I found the music rambling and tedious. Is modern opera always like that?

One of the main themes of the novel is language and communication. The characters have come together from all over the world, but manage to communicate even though they speak Spanish, English, Russian, Japanese, Italian, German, etc. I was looking forward to hearing each character sing in the language in which he or she speaks in the book. Much of the singing in the opera is in different languages, but there was also an almost random amount of singing in English. In the novel, the rebels only speak Spanish, so why do they often sing in English in the opera? One of Hosokawa's most salient characteristics in the book is that he never learned to speak anything but Japanese, yet his opera character sometimes sings in English. Why? Opera doesn't need translation like movies do because the libretto is displayed for the audience. 

Mainly I was disappointed by the opera's emphasis on tension and conflict instead the relationships the rebels and hostages build, which are the beauty and heart of the novel. How could Patchett let the focus of her novel disappear into shooting and yelling? The opera had none of the novel's humor or the slow melt of its characters' animosities into affection. The novel is a brilliant study of the human character in all its pain and helpless evolution, but those themes didn't translate to the opera stage.

Then again, this could all indicate that I'm just not an opera lover. I suspect that I need not spend another $100 on a ticket to the opera because it's just not my medium. I'd rather stay home with a good book.

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