Thursday, June 7, 2012

BEL CANTO by Ann Patchett ✰✰✰✰✰

This is an outstanding novel that wraps itself around its theme of opera in such a lovely, natural way.  Ann Patchett was inspired to write her novel by the Lima Crisis, when the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru was overtaken by terrorists in 1996-97.  The idea to intersperse opera into the plot line of her novel occurred to her because she felt that the whole situation of the hostage crisis was like an opera plot.
The novel involves one setting, the mansion home of the vice president of an unnamed South American country where a birthday party is being hosted for a Japanese industrialist.  During the party, just after the headline entertainment, the world famous opera soprano, Roxane Coss, has sung, terrorists take over the mansion, hoping to kidnap the country’s president, only to discover that he was not in attendance. 
There are fifty-eight people in the mansion for the entire length of the crisis, thirty-nine hostages and nineteen terrorists, but the reader gets to know only a handful of each group well.  In addition, there is one outsider, a Red Cross worker who works as the liaison between the terrorists and the government, who comes and goes freely.  Ms. Patchett does an excellent job of juggling her cast (because one does begin to feel as if one is living in the middle of an opera here) of disparate characters from a wide range of nationalities.  Russians maintain gruff slavic mannerisms with brooding storied souls.  Japanese are gracious and reserved.  Even cooking dinner for fifty-eight couldn’t break the effusive stride of the fine-dining loving French ambassador.  Characterizations were tight and consistent, and that was impressive.  One character was pivotal, that of Gen Watanabe, the translator for the Japanese industrialist for whom the party was thrown.  Gen has a unique talent for languages, and his polyglot status makes him indispensable not only to the terrorists in their efforts to communicate with their group of multinational prisoners, but among the captives themselves as they settle in to life together.  I loved his character and the touching ways his gifts enabled him to interact with the others throughout the book.
Opera plays more than one role in the plot.  It is the initiator of the whole event in that it is what brings them all to the party, and then it becomes the balm that soothes their souls as they exist from day to day.  On a larger scale, the whole plot of the book shares the structure of an opera, and you can not, if you are familiar with how opera plots play out, and if you read into the foreshadowing written into the novel itself, help but know on some level how this novel is going to end.
My own relationship with the music within the novel was very personal, as I, like Roxane Coss, was an opera singer, and I too was a lyric soprano.  On one hand it was a lot of fun, as in many places I heard the marvelous scores of the world’s grandest composers swelling through my head as I read.  But on the other, it was a little irritating, because things that the average reader might not even notice really bothered me.  For instance, a couple of pieces that the author had Roxane sing are not lyric pieces; one was for a dramatic soprano, sung only in the advanced years of their career, as it is very taxing on the voice, and the other was for a coloratura soprano-a lyric soprano might be able to do one or the other, but not both.  The other element bothered me even more.  Roxane went two weeks without singing at all, supposedly because she lacked an accompanist.  She couldn’t even sing a scale without one.  What a load of hooey!  For one thing, I have never met a single professional singer who would go more than a day or two, unless they were sick, in which they didn’t vocalize, and no singer even needs a piano (which Roxane had) for that.  With a piano, every singer can at least peck out one-handed their starting pitches for their exercises.  Secondly, pretty much every singer can muddle their way through their parts and even some measure of the accompaniment of an opera score, so I found the whole drama regarding an accompanist overwrought, although I did love Mr. Kato’s character.  Let me make it clear: opera singers come up through university and conservatory systems and have to pass piano proficiency exams.  Admittedly, many of us play quite abysmally, and we love and are grateful for the talents of our wonderful accompanists, who spend so many hours behind the scenes and never get any credit, but the real Roxane Coss’ of the world can play their own exercises when necessity demands.  Ultimately, I had to let the little things, which I knew the average reader wouldn’t even catch, go, and just read the book.  Unless you are very familiar with opera repertoire, I don’t think that you would catch these things, and Roxane probably just comes across as a typical prima donna.
Overall, as a novel, I loved this book.  The opening section is one of the most captivatingly, alluringly written of any novel I have ever read and the ending took me completely by surprise.  It would make a fantastic book club read, because there is definitely a depth to the characters, and their relationships with each other and their captors (you could definitely use the term Stockholm Syndrome), which would make for excellent discussion.  If your book club enjoys getting into deeper analysis, there is also a good deal of symbolism in the book.  There were truly beautiful relationships in this novel-complex, multi-layered-of the sort that develop only under very intense conditions.  The plot certainly reflects that of many an opera, and indeed, the Chicago Lyric announced in February (click to link to announcement) that it has commissioned an opera based on the novel, which will premier during its 2015-16 season, by Peruvian composer Jimmy Lopez, with Libretto by Nilo Cruz; Sir Andrew Davis will conduct and Roxane Coss will be sung by Danielle de Niese.  Author Ann Patchett said she never had any desire to ever see this book made into a movie, but she always felt that it would make a wonderful opera.  It will be interesting to see!  The Lyric is a fantastic company, and the legendary soprano Renee Fleming is at the helm of the project, so I would say that Ms. Patchett’s book is in very good hands.

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