Relief may be the main emotion experienced by those committed to the cause of new music in Chicago this week, following the Lyric Opera’s much-hyped première of Bel Canto, the first opera commissioned by the company since William Bolcom’s A Wedding in 2005. For (such a person might reason) it could have been much worse: some anodyne story about love or loss, guided deftly to its redemptive finale through singing that lives up entirely to the opera’s name.

Danielle de Niese (Roxanne) and John Irvin (Christopf) © Todd Rosenberg
Danielle de Niese (Roxanne) and John Irvin (Christopf)
© Todd Rosenberg

Yet Bel Canto, the first opera by Peruvian composer Jimmy López, with a libretto by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz, manages the nearly unimaginable: it is a contemporary work with a musical idiom that is both emotionally direct and musically interesting, piecing together minimalism and intricate polyrhythmic structures in an overall sound that would be at home in Hollywood. What is most impressive about these various influences is how seamlessly they are interwoven into López’s style – there is no cognitive dissonance whatsoever as he moves from a careening, percussive texture to an indulgently lyrical one. It sounds like the accumulated riches of the 20th century, spoken as a native tongue.

The opera is an adaptation of Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel of the same name, itself an inspired-by-a-true-story account of a hostage crisis, beginning in Lima in late 1996 and ending the following year, in which members of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement took hundreds of high-level diplomats hostage for four months at the house of the Japanese ambassador to Peru. One of Patchett’s transformations to the story was to make one of the hostages an opera singer – Roxane Coss, sung charismatically by Danielle de Niese – thus readying the path for the Lyric’s adaptation. The production’s tone is strikingly realist, with commandos dropping from the sky and genuinely terrifying gunfire. The vision is completed by David Korins’ set, which features the most beautiful kitchen seen on the Lyric’s stage since last year’s Rusalka, and beautifully disorienting photography projected onto a blank proscenium by Greg Emetaz, which constantly shifts the stage action’s frame.

Anthony Roth Costanzo (Cesar) © Todd Rosenberg
Anthony Roth Costanzo (Cesar)
© Todd Rosenberg

Perhaps inevitably, singing and the hostage situation become entangled thematically. Yet there is something uncomfortable in some of the allegorical uses to which opera singing is put in the libretto. Cruz’s poetic impulse leads him to make connections that would have been better left alone. For instance, a terrorist contrasts Coss’ expressive voice to the silence of oppressed people. How does this comparison work? In what sense is a single individual’s well-trained operatic voice a suitable corollary to the metaphor of silence as an indication of oppression? The realist dramaturgy makes some of the claims about opera’s power in its midst especially egregious. Coss’ voice is apparently so potent that the terrorists are nearly lulled into abandoning their cause. Like Odysseus with the sirens, the terrorist leader must constrain the voice’s effect to keep the revolutionary plot on course.

One gets the sense that the opera is less committed to exploring the hostage situation that is its historical subject matter than in using this situation to make claims about opera’s universal immediacy and power. This is obviously rather self-serving, but it is also rather obtuse and irresponsible ethically, historically and culturally. Thus conservative aesthetic values persist in the midst of a show that looks and, to some degree, sounds modern. Deep-seated and toxic views about the primacy of “love”– delivered through a Western aesthetic idiom – over the complexities and realities of another country’s historical situation are smuggled in under the cover of a “contemporary” story.

Rafael Davila (General Alfredo) and Bradley Smoak (General Benjamin) © Todd Rosenberg
Rafael Davila (General Alfredo) and Bradley Smoak (General Benjamin)
© Todd Rosenberg

Fortunately, the opera’s sounds are much more attractive than its message. J’Nai Bridges, whose modest yet deeply compelling presence was on display in last year’s Il trovatore, is given a showcase aria near the beginning of Act II as a female terrorist who falls in love with one of the hostages. The number turns out to be the heart of the opera, not only because its far more tonal language and emphasis on strings as opposed to brass or percussion offers a welcome lyrical space within the plot’s chaos. It is also an opportunity for Bridges to show off her beautifully mellow and dark voice, wonderfully smooth through its entire compass. Another honey-voiced terrorist is Cesar, sung by Anthony Roth Costanzo in a bracing countertenor. There are, in fact, no notable weaknesses in the singing cast, though on opening night there were still issues with balance and ensemble.

Yet I suspect that most people will walk away, not with the singing, but with López’s jangling, shimmering orchestral score in their ears. Though its title refers to song, it is the fusion of textures and styles coming from the pit that gives Bel Canto a memorable musical profile.

***11