Lyric's 'Bel Canto' depicts triumph of love over terrorist bullets

Sir Andrew Davis
Chicago Tribune

Seldom has a new opera been overtaken by real-life events quite to the degree that "Bel Canto" has at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Audience members attending the work's highly anticipated world premiere Monday night in the Civic Opera House could not help but draw connections between its opening scene — which depicts a concert setting invaded by rifle-toting terrorists — and the Nov. 13 terrorist massacre in a Paris theater, along with more recent mass shootings and acts of violence right here on the streets of Chicago.

In a letter to patrons inserted in the program book, Lyric general director Anthony Freud reminded audience members that the Lyric-commissioned adaptation of Ann Patchett's eponymous, bestselling 2001 novel had been in the works for five years, and that neither company officials nor the creative team could have known beforehand how "startlingly topical" composer Jimmy Lopez and librettist Nilo Cruz's opera would turn out to be.

There were no disruptions of any kind at Monday's opening, but, just in case, extra security had been stationed at the theater entrances. Ticketholders were invited to attend a post-performance discussion of the opera and the issues it raises. Such discussions will accompany the remaining six performances.

While the coincidence of reality and fiction was striking, it was incidental to the fact the enthusiastic audience (which included a hefty representation of national and international press) got a gripping performance and a thought-provoking production worthy of a world-class opera company. "Bel Canto" may be dramatically flawed, but, then, so is the book on which it is based and which it is actually superior to.

Curiously absent from the prolonged ovations that greeted the large cast, Lopez, Cruz, conductor Andrew Davis, 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," Lyric's first main stage premiere since 2004 and one of only seven operas the company has commissioned for its main stage in its 61-year history. 

There's an appropriately claustrophobic feel to designer David Korins' spacious unit set representing the vice presidential mansion, illuminated by Duane Schuler. This swanky prison gets progressively more disheveled as the 126 days of captivity wear on. (Time's passing is marked by grimy strokes on white enameled walls). Greg Emetaz's scenic projections open up the space at certain moments to conjure images of a rain forest and opera house. Costumer Constance Hoffman outfits everyone in attire appropriate to social station.

Conducting the fourth opera of his Lyric podium marathon this fall, Davis summons incisive playing from his well-prepared orchestra and full-blooded singing from director Michael Black's finely disciplined chorus. 

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