Danielle de Niese and John Irvin Credit: Todd Rosenberg

At the beginning of the five years of planning that went into Lyric Opera’s Bel Canto, a new work based on the Ann Patchett novel of the same name, no one could have anticipated how relevant its opening, which took place earlier this week, would be.

The devastating subject matter—the story of a terrorist attack and ensuing hostage standoff—combined with equally devastating current events make it an intense experience for the cast and creative team as well as the audience. Speaking at a panel discussion the week before the opening, the opera’s lead, superstar Danielle de Niese, said it had “brought out the best” of every cast member.  “We’ve bled for this piece—spiritually, emotionally,” de Niese said.

Although Patchett’s novel never names the South American country in which it is set, her plot was inspired by an actual 1996 event in Lima, Peru, when 14 members of a Marxist revolutionary group crashed a party at the home of the Japanese ambassador and held 72 people hostage for four months. Patchett put a renowned opera diva at the center of the party and wrote about both the human bonds that might develop in such a situation and the transcendent power of music, which is the diverse group’s only common language. It’s a 300-page book, with a large, multilingual cast of characters, mostly taking place in a single room.

Which made it quite a challenge for composer Jimmy López and librettist Nilo Cruz, neither of whom had ever written an opera before.   

Cruz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (for Anna in the Tropics), has said that narrowing down the story to a two-act opera that would be “action-driven and lyrical” was scary—”like taking a novel and making a poem out of it.” He succeeded with the lyrical part: the libretto is distinctly poetic (most successfully in its descriptions of Peru, where López grew up). And, given the confined setting, there’s plenty of gun-wielding action.

Paring down the novel while retaining the book’s shifting sense of time and the nuances of multiple relationships proved to be more problematic.  If you’ve read the book, it won’t matter—you’ll be able to tick off the scenes as they appear and fill in the context yourself. If you haven’t read the book, it’ll be helpful to peruse the synopsis before things get underway.

Then there’s the music. The orchestral score is rich and varied, novel and extremely dramatic. But if you’re looking for bel canto in Bel Canto, you’ll be disappointed. López’s prior experience has been primarily as an orchestral composer and, although he’s written arias, duets, and quartets for this opera, with a few exceptions the excellent voices here have little that’s memorable to work with. The exceptions include a second-act solo, beautifully sung by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, and another by mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges.  For the most part, however, the kind of vocal music that can capture heart and mind—like the Rossini, Verdi, and Mozart that enthralls captors and captives alike in Patchett’s book—is missing. 

What works? The use of eight languages by the international group of hostages. The graceful—and gradually degraded—double-staircase set, by David Korins. Costumes, including the can’t-miss-it aqua suit that marks a victim and the sparkling diva dress de Niese wears for her grand entrance. Kevin Newbury’s direction. Strong performances all around, but notably by tenor Andrew Stenson, as the translator; bass-baritone Jeongcheol Cha as his boss (and de Neise’s paramour); and baritone Jacques Imbrailo as the beleaguered Red Cross go-between. The Lyric Opera chorus, as both hostages and rebels, and, especially, the Lyric orchestra, conducted by Andrew Davis.

Also, what Lyric general director Anthony Freud describes, in a letter inserted into the program book, as the “startlingly topical” story. Concerned about this bloody relevance, Lyric is, for the first time that I know of, hosting postshow discussions.