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La Hija de Rappaccini
NEW YORK CITY
Gotham Chamber Opera
Alvarez (center) in Gotham Chamber Opera's La Hija de Rappaccini at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden
© Richard Termine 2013
The Brooklyn Botanic Garden made a most appropriate selection for the first opera presentation in its 103-year history: La Hija de Rappaccini, Mexican composer Daniel Catán's opera adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "Rappaccini's Daughter," was offered on June 17 and 24 in the Garden's breathtaking Cherry Esplanade. This excellent performance was presented in collaboration with Gotham Chamber Opera.
"Rappaccini's Daughter" was published in Hawthorne's 1844 story collection Mosses from an Old Manse. The Hawthorne story was adapted into a 1956 Spanish-language play by Octavio Paz that also served as source material for Catán's opera, first heard in Mexico City in 1991. La Hija de Rappaccini tells the tale of a mad scientist who is cultivating bizarre hybrids of flowering plants in an effort to create the world's strongest poisons. Acting on the assumption that if his research is successful it will lead to the cures for all illnesses, thus ushering in an era of near-immortality for man, Dr. Rappaccini has raised his daughter in isolation. He has consciously exposed her to the toxic plants in the hope that she may develop an immunity to them and then become the first mother of a race of disease-resistant superhumans. When a handsome young medical-school student rents an apartment overlooking Rappaccini's garden, the romantic aspect of the drama commences.
Gotham Chamber Opera was able to assemble a superb cast of singers for this production. Soprano Elaine Alvarez clearly understood the mysterious allure of Beatriz, the title character; as in Hawthorne's story, one wished to know more about this lonely but enchanting young woman. As Giovanni, Beatriz's captivated suitor, tenor Daniel Montenegro gave a charismatic, passionate interpretation. Alvarez and Montenegro received excellent dramatic and musical support from baritone Eric Dubin as Rappaccini, tenor Brian Downen as Baglioni and mezzo Jessica Grigg as Isabella, as well as from the three dancing singers (Ariana Wyatt, Cassandra Zoé Velasco and Nora Graham-Smith) who represented flowers in the garden and symbolized Rappaccini's impact on the principal characters.
The loss of Daniel Catán, who died in 2011 at the age of sixty-two, was a cultural tragedy. There is a distinct Latin element to Catán's music, though not so overtly displayed as in the work of composers such as Astor Piazzolla. Catán had a special harmonic gift, similar to that heard in the best work of composer/arranger Gil Evans — the ability to write a lovely, lyrical melodic line while adding poignant, subtle dissonances to the harmony, thus creating an atmosphere of trouble or sorrow underlying a more serene surface aura.
Given the limited, albeit lovely, site of these Rappaccini performances, the option for a full orchestra and elaborate sets could not be accommodated. Fortunately, the composer himself had created a reduced orchestration of two pianos, harp and percussion, which worked beautifully here. The harpist in these performances was Andrea Puente Catán, the composer's widow. The musicians and cast were led keenly by Gotham artistic director Neal Goren. Despite the acoustic challenges of an outdoor space with no actual opera pit, Goren achieved a good balance between the singers and the orchestra, aided by very able sound enhancement; the singers as well as the orchestra used microphones.
Riccardo Hernandez's set design was a model of concise, sensitive creativity, a perfect balance with the natural beauty of the Cherry Esplanade. Rebecca Taichman's stage direction, never overstated or lacking in essential detail, exquisitely enhanced the drama. And the weather cooperated.
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