There was a certain frisson in the air entering Chicago Lyric Opera last night, and not just in anticipation of attending the world premiere of a new work by Jimmy Lopez (music) and Nilo Cruz (libretto), Bel Canto.  Particularly for those who read Ann Patchett’s splendid novel on which the opera is based, there was a certain sense of danger at attending an opera about a terrorist attack and hostage-taking.  

Lyric General Director Anthony Freud wisely wrote a letter as a program insert, calling the opera “startlingly topical” in the light of recent, almost daily instances of indiscriminate violence.  His letter, as well as a notice on the supertitle screen, warned the audience that there would be loud theatrical gunfire in the piece.

And indeed there was.  But what transpired on stage for the next three hours was a deeply moving, deeply human new work of musical art.  Lopez has written a magnificent score, with lush arias surrounded by a dramatic tension in the music that never lets up.

Beginning with the ominous overture, Lopez’ music reflects perfectly the action and the characters of the opera.  Cruz’ libretto is as poetic as Patchett’s language in the novel, and delineates character with skill and beauty.  The Embassy setting allows the characters to sing in their national languages: there are moments of singing in: Spanish, English, Japanese, Russian, German, French, Latin, and Quechua!

Set in the Japanese embassy to Peru where dignitaries are gathering to celebrate the birthday of a Japanese industrialist and hear a concert by his favorite singer Roxane Coss, the story contrasts the violent takeover of the embassy by Tupac Amaru guerrilla fighters with the delicate relationships that develop during the long siege between hostages and their captors.

It’s a love story surrounded by political violence.  The opera begins with cruelty and terror, and develops into a fascinating study of how aspects of our common humanity can shine through even in the most desperate circumstances.

Lyric has assembled a large cast of mostly young singers, and they are all given their moment to shine.  J’Nai Bridges stands out as the tender hearted guerrilla Carmen, acting with great sensitivity and singing the most beautiful aria of the evening, the prayer “Santa Rosa de Lima”.

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo is very moving as the young guerrilla Cesar, singing a haunting tale of his life in the jungle and the day he discovered his singing voice.  Rafael Davila is convincing as the guerrilla leader General Alfredo, both in his sudden flashes of temper and his occasional gentleness.

As the industrialist Hosokawa and his interpreter Watanabe, both Jeongcheol Cha and Andrew Stenson provide fine singing and great dignity.  Cha is particularly ardent in his romantic wooing of the American singer, and Stenson is delightful in his youthful enthusiasm in wooing Carmen.

I was also quite taken by the Jacques Imbrailo as the young Red Cross worker Joachim Messner, who serves as a negotiator between the guerillas and the government soldiers outside.  He sings and acts with great intelligence and passion, and has a harrowing scene when he begins to panic that the situation will end in violence.

The role of the American diva Roxane Cross is pivotal, and here we find a miscast Danielle deNiese.  Ms. deNiese terribly overplays the diva “behavior” in the first act, drawing laughs when we should fear for her safety as the insurgents attack.  In Patchett’s novel, the character is infused with dignity.  Here, she just seems fussy.

Now, to her credit, deNiese goes deeper as the opera moves to the second act, and is excellent in her “bedroom scene” with Hosokawa.  She also offers a fully committed, emotionally varied final scene over the body of her murdered lover, though a couple of high notes went awry.  Still, this was an impressive final monologue.

Another weak scene, which frankly should be cut, is the awkward attempt by the Russian diplomat (Runi Brattaberg) to woo Roxane.  The singer doesn’t have the low notes for the role, and the scene falls flat and simply seems a lame attempt at comic relief.

Sir Andrew Davis conducts superbly—the best work I’ve heard from him in years.  He understands that the powerful tension in the score must never waiver, and we are on the edge of our seats through much of the second and all of the first act.  The Lyric Opera orchestra and chorus do exemplary work.

The gorgeous set  by David Korins is immensely enhanced by Greg Emetaz’ superb, moving projections.  Costume designer Constance Hoffman does lovely work, especially with the embassy guests and with Roxane’s shimmering blue gown.  And finally, Stage Director Kevin Newbury has done a superb job in this extremely complicated staging.

There are almost always dozens of characters on the stage, and everyone clearly knows their movement pattern and their character’s purpose.  Newbury’s clear and insightful direction keeps the story moving fluidly and keeps the dramatic tension taut.  Nick Sandys’ fight direction is also excellent.  The physical reactions of the shooting victims are shockingly realistic.

I think this is finally a contemporary opera with “legs.”  Rumor has it that it will be recorded for PBS’s Great Performances series.  I am anxious to experience this fine work again.