Chicago Classical Review »» Daniel Catán’s Music Takes Flight at COT’s “Rappaccini” Premiere
By Lawrence A. Johnson
There is a lot to be said about occasionally taking opera out of opera and performing it in settings that can enhance the work, brighten the music, and refresh the form.
Then give credit to the Chicago Opera Theater for the sharpness of the programming and the creativity of the staging. The company’s final production of this virtual pandemic season served audiences as Daniel Catán’s Chicago premiere Rappaccini’s hija, presented Saturday night in a performance broadcast live from the Field Museum.
Catán’s opera in 1991 launched his career, leading to his Florencia in the Amazonas five years later, a work that has been a huge success and multiple productions around the work. (Florencia is scheduled for Lyric Opera’s 2021-22 season.) Sadly, Catán passed away suddenly in 2011 while working on the premiere of his opera, Il Postino.
Rappaccini’s hija (libretto by Juan Tovar) is an adaptation of the play of the same name by Octavio Paz, which is itself a dramatization of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, Rappaccini’s daughter. Hawthorne’s Typically Weird Story tells the story of Giovanni, a young university student from Padua, Italy, who is struck by the beauty of Beatriz, a young woman he sees in the beautiful garden under his window. He is fascinated but pissed off by the mysterious girl, who seems as supernatural as the plants and flowers in the garden, tended by her scientist father, Rappaccini. Giovanni’s friend Dr Baglioni tells him about Rappacini’s sordid reputation and warns against getting involved with his daughter. After meeting her, Giovanni becomes obsessed, even as he sees a rose wither immediately under the girl’s touch. Ultimately, Giovanni realizes that just like the deadly towering purple plant in the garden, Beatriz is poisonous and the mere touch of her hand would be fatal. Dr. Baglioni provides Giovanni with an antidote that can cure Beatriz. Giovanni angrily confronts her but the girl is innocent of her danger to others. Devastated by Giovanni’s angry accusations, she quickly drinks the remedy, which kills her instead of curing her.
Written in 1844, Hawthorne’s strange fable touches on many themes: the limits of inhuman science, romantic obsessions, and love that can destroy humanity as much as it heals. But the subject of innocent human contact that can lead to death could hardly be more of the present day. Rappaccini’s creation of plants and humans with an innate transmissible poison was intentional. But the fact that the questionable gain in functional research may have contributed to the creation of the current Covid-19 pandemic – a story still largely underreported – which has led to a global toll of over 3 million people is more terrifying than any fiction.
Timeliness of the narrative aside, it’s easy to see how Rappaccini’s hija quickly launched Catán’s career. The Mexican composer is a natural at opera, and the 100-minute two-act work – performed here without an intermission – presents his grateful handwriting for the voices in a conversational way that naturally develops into high-flying solo tunes. , an extended duet for Giovanni and Beatriz, and a dramatic final trio.
COT’s production went off without a hitch on Saturday evening – a remarkable achievement given the ubiquitous technological pitfalls as well as the logistical complexities of an opera relay live from a museum space. Congratulations to director Crystal Manich for the natural movements, to technical director Joseph Staffa for the smooth transitions between the different areas of the museum and to the entire video production team at Valhalla Media.
Daniel Montenegro made a terrific debut at COT as protagonist Giovanni. The American tenor has recorded every aspect of his character throughout the unfolding narrative – from the initial plot line to romantic obsession, fear, anger and tragic acceptance. The Montenegro sang with a supple, warm and seductive tone, his middleweight tenor rising in the Puccini-like lyricism of his Act 2 aria.
In the tough title role, Megan Pachecano was largely impressive in her company arc as Beatriz. Technically, the young soprano delivered the vocal goods of the hapless character, singing the long lines of Catán with agility and a clear, crystalline tone.
In a dramatic way, the young singer transmitted the quality of sincere daughter of Beatriz. However, her performance lacked the loneliness, mystery, and innate sadness of the haunted maiden, knowing that she is as poisonous as her father’s artificial plants. Still, Pachecano managed to fathom the required expressive depth of Beatriz’s final aria by affecting the mode.
As Rappaccini, Levi Hernandez succeeded at all levels. The Texas-born baritone encompassed the vocal demands of the role – including disturbing high notes as Rappaccini nurtures his poisonous plants – as well as the frightening Mad Botanist’s bizarre experiences and malicious plans for his daughter and Giovanni.
Curtis Bannister appeared to be wrong as Dr Baglioni, being the same age as Giovanni and barely reflecting a middle-aged and sympathetic friend of his father. The reward was due to the magnificent voice and song of the tenor, which made this part of the compresario the center of each of its scenes.
Jenny Schuler delivered a worthy cameo as Giovanni Isabela’s housekeeper. Rachel Blaustein, Emily Birsan and Morgan Middleton provided evocative vocals as Flowers’ backstage chorus.
With mood lighting by Sarah Riffle, spare sets, flowers and plants by Emily Boyd effectively set the scene with minimal means for Giovanni’s apartment and Rappaccini’s garden, the latter located in the main hall of the museum. The massive columns in the museum hall were a good representation of the exteriors of Padua.
The costumes turned out to be much more mixed. Brenda Winstead’s period costumes for Giovanni and Rappaccini set the scene and the Mediterranean region. Not so unhappy as Beatriz: a knee-length ruffle purple dress with flower garlands and flashing lights that looked like a bizarre mix of chintzy ball gown and high school renaissance. Hair.
Like his style, Catán composed his opera for a large orchestra, an opera that would have been impossible for both budgetary and logistical reasons. The composer’s chamber reduction was used and although much of Catán’s sonic lavishness was inevitably sacrificed, the quirky quintet (two pianos, harp, timpani and percussion) provided its own eerie and effective textures.
At the start of Saturday night, balancing – and / or audio mixing – seemed to favor the timpani to the detriment of other players. That aside, young conductor Enrico Lopez-Yañez led a largely fluid and responsive performance in his COT debut, a performance that provided a supreme plea for Catán’s score with the superb playing of pianists Yasuko Oura. and Patrick Godon.
The only dubious element of the evening was the unmissable ‘recognition of the land’ that preceded COT’s stage performances in various forms over the past two years (as well as at events hosted by other venues and presenters. of Chicago).
On Saturday night, it was on-screen text rather than a verbal announcement: “This production is being broadcast live from the Field Museum, which recognizes that it resides on the traditional lands of the Confederacy of the Three Fires: Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi, and also the Ho-Chunk, Miami, Inoka, Menominee and many more. The Museum recognizes and is grateful to the original peoples who laid the foundation for the city of Chicago and to the various Indigenous nations who now reside in Chicago. The ad also encourages clicking on a link that leads to a political organization with an official government-sounding name and logo.
Asked why the announcements were made, a spokesperson for COT said the statement was “a mere sign of respect and gratitude to the indigenous peoples on whose traditional lands we perform these works.” She added that the pre-show comments “came from COT’s continued commitment to growth as an anti-racist organization.”
In today’s hyper-politicized culture, some will see such obligatory apologia before every performance as another example of an angry awakening while others will see it in a more benign way.
Still, taking a guilt trip onto members of the audience as quasi-occupiers before the virtual curtain even rises doesn’t seem like the best way to make them receptive to the performance that follows.
Daniel Catan’s streaming production Rappaccini’s hija will be available until 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. cot.org
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