Lyric Opera’s Bel Canto: The Music, The Music, The Music

Bel canto poster0001“It has a tremendous variety of expression, of musical ideas. It has a virtuoso quality to it. It has very driven and barbaric moments about it, very lyrical moments, very sensual moments. It has chamber music in the midst of all this bombastic stuff. It’s incredibly exciting.”

The words of Leonard Bernstein’s former pupil Yakov Kreizberg, describing his mentor’s score for the film On the Waterfront, also summarize the achievement of composer Jimmy Lopez’s music for his new opera Bel Canto. In fact, Lopez’s music bears a wonderfully strong resemblance to Bernstein’s only film score, possibly because both works explore musically themes of idealism, love, violence, faith, and corruption.

Both instrumentally and vocally Lopez’s music is brilliantly designed to enhance the atmosphere and the mood of the story, while creating the world of the opera. In addition, Mr. Lopez’s music helps the frail narrative along. At times, Lopez’s music even becomes the dominant character in the action.

Lyric Opera Consultant Renee Fleming must be credited with finding Mr. Lopez from among almost one hundred young composers eager to score a new opera for a major opera house. If Mr. Lopez were a stock, the word on the street now would be, “Buy”.

All of the musicians involved in the production seem inspired by his work. Conductor Sir Andrew Davis finds every bit of drama and theatrical passion through the dynamic playing of the Lyric Opera Orchestra. Lopez’s great opera music invisibly gets the audience to feel what is unspoken, while at the same time clarifying and streamlining the often unclear and confusing storyline of Ann Patchett’s novel.

Often Mr. Lopez’s Bernstein-like music rescues Patchett’s banal plot by stoking the fires of adventure, with its own incredible narrative quality. Mr. Lopez’s music heightens her unlikely romances with brilliant orchestrations.

The singers are up to the musical challenges. As the world famous diva Roxane Cross, Danielle de Neise needs a few early arias to establish her character’s identity as a great soprano, though, when Ms. De Niese is afforded the opportunity to soar  in Act II, there is no doubt that her character’s fame is justified. J’nai Bridges’ Carmen delivers a wonderful prayer to Santa Rosa, bass-baritone business man Katsumi Hosokawa, sung by Jeongcheol Cha, makes a formidable partner for Ms. De Niese, and Anthony Roth Costanzo’s Cesar reveals one of the most glorious countertenor voices you are likely to hear.

David Korins’ realistic unit setting could have taken less cue from Ms. Patchett’s plodding literalism and more from Mr. Lopez’s imaginative music.

Speaking of Ms. Patchett and Leonard Bernstein…

Ms. Patchett’s party, mixing Marxist terrorists with the cultural elite, recalls Mr. Bernstein’s own party which mixed the Black Panthers and his own circle of culture mavens in January of 1970. The event prompted writer Tom Wolfe * to coin the phrase “Radical Chic” to describe the phenomenon, of which Ms. Patchett’s novel is a clear member.

The idea of mixing deadly revolutionaries with classical musicians comes from a naïve worldview based partly on playwright William Congreve’s bon mot, “Musick has Charms to sooth a Savage breast,” and another part from Don Draper’s cynical Coca Cola ad idea which closes the run of Mad Men:

I’d like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I’d like to hold it in my arms
And keep it company

I’d like to see the world for once
All standing hand in hand
And hear them echo through the hills
For peace throughout the land

Not even a libretto by Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Nilo Cruz can redeem such a fundamentally preposterous Aristophanic idea.

Bel Canto joins John Adams’ Death of Klinghoffer (1991) in contemporary opera’s terrorist section of the library.

* Wolfe, Tom. Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971.

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