Sunday, January 8, 2012

Bel Canto

My book club met yesterday to discuss our latest read -- Bel Canto by Ann Patchett.

The book was very well-written, winning a book award that had prompted our choosing to read it. The story is loosely-based on an incident that happened in Lima, Peru several years ago. In Bel Canto, an international group of industrialists, diplomats and wealthy opera patrons are invited to a gala to celebrate the birthday of the president and founder of a Japanese electronics company, Mr. Hosokawa. The country is hosting the birthday celebration and hoping that, while he is there, Mr. Hosokawa will tour the area and decide to build a factory to boost their poor economy. Mr Hosokawa has no intention of investing in their country, but succumbs to the invitation when told that Roxane Coss, one of the world's greatest operatic sopranos, will perform at the party, and possibly sing a personal request. The party is held at the Vice-Presidental mansion and compound, with approximately 150 guests. At the end of Roxane's sixth song, all lights are extinguished and the building is captured by a group of local terrorists, hoping to kidnap the President of their country, not knowing that he stayed home from the party to watch his favorite soap opera. The terrorists are not a violent group and the absence of the country's President causes a dilemma which results in a long-term hostage situation. They release most of the women, children, household staff and anyone with health conditions requiring medication, leaving them with 58 captives, including the opera star, Roxane. The siege lasts four months, and the novel explores the relationships that develop between and among the hostages and terrorists, principally the love they all have or come to have for the music and persona of Roxane Coss. 

I have always enjoyed opera, but I've never been exposed to a great operatic performance. My experience is limited to television, college productions and recordings. Ann Patchett manages to describe the reactions and results of the daily exposure of this incredibly beautiful music on this disparate group of people. I found my self caught up with the idea of that kind of personal exposure. Can you imagine a voice that has, without aid, filled the great performance halls of the world, coming from an individual standing four feet away from you? Patchett describes how no one in the house is able to move when Roxane sings. All talk, movement, actions cease while everyone watches her, breathlessly. 

The descriptions of the arias she sang overwhelmed my curiosity and I had to go on a search. I found several of them on YouTube and listened while I read the passages describing her singing. What a wonderful experience! How blessed we are to have this technology at our fingertips. I have to share some of the recordings with you.

The first is by soprano Renee Fleming. This is the aria Mr. Hosokawa requests from Roxane at the party. It is one of her favorites and one that she sings frequently -- "Song to the moon" from the opera "Rusalka" by Anton Dvorak. It is sung in Czechoslovakian.

One day Roxane practices a particularly difficult song, singing it seven times with minute adjustments each time. Here the song, "Belta Crudele" (translation Cruel Beauty) by Rossini is sung in Italian by Cecilia Bartoli, another great soprano.

 As the story develops, Roxane discovers one of the young terrorists, Cesar, has a beautiful voice and begins to train him. He develops to the point where he performs a song for the group, after which Roxane sings "Una voce poco fa" (translation, The voice I just heard) from Rossini's opera "The Barber of Seville" as a tribute to Cesar. Here is a version sung in Italian with English subtitles by the great Beverly Sills.

Can you believe how she just seemingly without effort, trills up and down throughout this entire song?  Before the book ended even I was in love with Roxane and I now have another life goal. I must attend one of the world's great operas, in one of the world's great opera houses, sung by a great opera star. Any suggestions?

Thanks for stopping by.