Bel Canto. The Book, The Opera.

Civic Opera House Lobby

 Anne Patchett’s Bel Canto is one of those books that I planned to read for a long time but never got around to it. I don’t know how long I’ve owned the paperback copy that sat on my shelf. But then sometime in the fall my Mom, who lives in Chicago, called and told me about the upcoming world premier production of Bel Canto at the Lyric Opera. She read the book when it first came out and loved it. I had been planning to visit Mom in January, so we purchased opera tickets and planned my trip around the show. I took the book of the shelf and put it on my TBR pile.

The Book
Bel Canto was my first read of 2016. (One down for #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks!) I adore this novel and it has set a high standard for this year’s reading. It is a life- and humanity-affirming story, full of characters that find passion and new potential for their lives in the most unlikely of circumstances. It’s a book that makes you want to be more compassionate, both to others as well as to yourself. I enjoyed how the book poked and prodded all sorts of stereotypes to reveal our shared humanity.

When I first heard about the novel I thought the premise sounded ridiculous: a group of important people are held hostage by guerrillas in a VP’s mansion somewhere in Latin America. These people “find themselves” and/or fall in love due to an opera singer in their midst? For real? Don’t let the description deter you. It’s a brilliant novel. Beautifully written. I already want to read it again.

The Opera
I’ve seen several operas, but am in no way an opera aficionado. Musicals are more my bag, but I do enjoy all sorts of live theatre. My mother has experienced many more operas than I. To say we were excited about seeing this opera was an understatement.  Our phone conversations leading up to my trip to Chicago pulsed with an underlying chant of Bel Canto, Bel Canto each time we talked. Needless to say, on the designated day we settled into our seats with Great Expectations. The theatre was abuzz with anticipatory energy. And I’m not talking about the usual pre-show chatter. This was a buzz created by a bunch of book lovers who were about to see a beloved novel come to life. “I loved the book,” were words that rose above the fray from every direction.

At the end of Act I Mom and I turned to each other with looks of surprised dismay. The first Act seemed a hot mess. There were so many people on the stage that sometimes we couldn’t at first tell who was singing. Perhaps this was intentional? This opera was performed in eight languages (reflecting the novel) with projected English subtitles. There was a lot of chaos and confusion and that is part of the story, but I think that there could have been a stronger emotional impact and attachment for the audience with better blocking and stronger character identities. The music was repetitious and the lyrics too often seemed trite. The over-use of dissonant sounds came to seem self-indulgent.

The operatic character of Roxanne failed to come across as a world class performer with a presence and a voice that would make people stop and listen. There was no way this stage Roxanne could pull off what the novel Roxanne did. She was a frumpy non-entity. Her songs were weak. The manner in which this operatic character was both written and directed did not come close to replicating the character in the novel.

The guerrillas were meaner and more violent than in the book. The male characters all seemed rather similar. The stand out character for me was Carmen, powerfully performed by J’nai Bridges, but she didn’t really come into her own until Act II.

During intermission Mom and I wondered what others thought, so I Googled a review. I was quietly reading the review to Mom so as not to annoy our neighbors when the woman next to her leaned over and asked if I was reading a review.

“Yes,” I said, “I’m sorry to have disturbed you.”
“No, no,” she shook her head, “I’m curious what it says.”

So we got to talking. It was her first opera. She was there with her teenage daughter–they both LOVED the book–and were feeling that perhaps they didn’t know how to appreciate opera. My mom assured them that this was not what opera was normally like. It was a nice bonding moment for two sets of mothers and daughters, four women generations apart, all of whom loved the same book.

J’nai Bridges

Act II was a bit more focused due to two story lines coming into focus. As in the book, these are the relationships of Roxanne & Mr. Hosokowa and Carmen & Gen. The music seemed more mature in Act II.  J’nai Bridges (Carmen) and Anthony Roth Costanzo (Cesar) had powerful solos that they sang beautifully. These songs had pathos and felt more substantial and developed than others. Their solos were the musical highlights of the opera as was a humorous song sung in deep bass by Runi Brattaberg (Fyodorov).


One good thing about this show was the set, which was dramatic and dynamic. It evolved to effectively convey both shifting moods and the passage of time. The set is mainly a large room with the front door of the mansion set upstage and two grand staircases flanking to the left and right. In once scene smaller rooms slide from the wings onto the stage to highlight the two love stories: Carmen and Gen in the kitchen to the lower left and Roxanne and Hosokowa in the bedroom to the upper right. The physical placement of these rooms was effective, but the scenes themselves, showing the couples getting it on, were a little too sappy. It also annoyed me that both women were partially undressed during the scene. I’m no prude. What bothered me was the blatant set up of women for the male gaze. In the book the relationships seemed more mutual and equal. Also, the song sang in the kitchen included a line that they were there among the knives–knives were a big deal in the book, so I thought this was a poor oversight. Did people who hadn’t read the book wonder why the captives didn’t take those knives and put up a fight? But I digress.

I think the weakness of the opera was that it attempted to follow the novel too closely. Some of the

Jimmy Lopez

main points were hit, but all the subtleties and nuances–the stuff that give the novel its soul–were missing. Overall, I am happy to have seen this production. Kudos to the Lyric for trying something different. And I will keep my radar on for future projects of composer Jimmy Lopez whose music is bold and interesting.

Least you think I’m too harsh, at the end of the show, standing in line for the woman’s room, not one person said they loved the opera. No one was rehashing a favorite scene or song. Everyone was politely talking about how they loved the book. One woman, who knew people connected with the show, avoided giving her opinion by simply commenting on how hard everyone worked. I wonder if people who hadn’t read the book enjoyed the opera more.

The performance we saw was recorded for PBS, so keep an eye out for it if you’re interested. No air dates have been listed at this time. Some good video editing might bring out all the best moments of this production.


  1. This was very interesting! Hopefully as the opera continues to grow and be performed they'll be able to change some of the direction or reduce the parts. I haven't read the book, but it sounded like an opera from the start 🙂

  2. I have read the book and have wondered ever since the opera adaptation was just a rumor whether the staged version would include some of the famous arias from other operas. I take it it didn't.

    Way back when the book first came out there was also a rumor that it would be turned into a film with Renee Fleming in the lead role–supposedly she was Patchett's inspiration for the role. Kind of glad it didn't happen because I am not a big fan of hers.

  3. I listened to the premiere life on radio via internet, even with subtitles, but I had to stop after 45 min, as the beginning was too close to real life – not much time after the Paris events.
    But I love the book and had read extensively about the opera making and watched online the wonderful interview between Fleming and the author. Hopefully I'll be able to see it later. Actually should be on PBS in a few months, I hope with free internet access (I don't have tv.
    I'm not surprised now by your comments.

What do you think? Leave a comment and let's talk!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.