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A Poisonous Tree Grows in Brooklyn

New York
Cherry Esplanade, Brooklyn Botanic Garden
06/17/2013 -  & June 24*, 2013
Daniel Catán: La hija de Rappaccini

Elaine Alvarez (Beatriz), Jessica Grigg (Isabela), Daniel Montenegro (Giovanni), Brian Dowen (Baglioni), Eric Dubin (Rappacinni), Ariana Wyatt, Cassandra Zoe Velasco, Nora Graham-Smith (Three voices, flowers)
Gotham Chamber Opera Orchestra: Michael Fennelly, William Hobbs (Piano), Andrea Puente Catán (Harp), Barry Centanni (Timpani), John Ostrowski (Percussion), Neal Goren (Conductor)
Rebecca Taichman (Director), Riccardo Hernandez (Scenic Design), Justin Townsend (Lighting Design), Anita Yavich (Costume Design), Mark Dendy (Choreographer)

N. Graham-Smith, C. Zoe Velasco, E. Alvarez, A. Wyatt
(© Richard Termine/Gotham Chamber Opera Company)

Claude Debussy would have sold his grandmother to set the libretto of Rappaccini’s Daughter for an opera. The story contains everything which Debussy adored. Perfumes and flowers, poisonous toxic breaths and medieval magicians, an unobtainable virgin, casement windows. And while the original story was by that wondrous American fabulist Nathaniel Hawthorne, his story had been translated into Spanish, so Debussy would have had his beloved Iberia as well.

But no, Hawthorne’s blood-curdling novella, made into a drama by Octavio Paz and then set to a libretto by Juan Tovar, was composed by an accomplished neo-Romantic Mexican composer, Daniel Catán, who died at the age of 62, just as he was finishing this “chamber” version of Rappaccini’s Daughter for the Gotham Opera Company. The second of two performances in the spacious cherry-tree encompassing Botanic Garden, showed a composer who died all too soon, and whose operas, like Il postino, must be given hearings soon.

The arboreal setting in the Esplanade was such a delight that one could put up with some of the technical and literary shortcomings. The generators broke toward the start of the opera, leaving the non-Spanish-speaking section of the audience titleless, and all of us virtually soundless.

Nor were the program notes very promising. Gregory Moomjy shunted Hawthorne’s story aside, affirming how Octavio Paz had “cut through Hawthorne’s Victorian prose”. Well, Hawthorne was born before Queen Victoria and wrote this in 1844, when the Queen had just ascended the throne. Nor could one downplay Hawthorne, an American as original as Twain or Melville, whose style was anything but Victorian. He was a dark Romanticist, who could write wild satire, historic morality stories, and, as in Rappaccini’s Daughter, plunge into the demonic heart of paranoia, delusion and (in this case), medical antibodies.

Octavio Paz (or perhaps Tovar) did add three characters to the story, a trio of “flower” ladies, personified the poison blooms raised by the scientist Rappaccini, who little by little poisons his daughter so that she becomes immune to poisons themselves.

(At the end, with the death of the girl, they come out with large tubs of flower blossoms poured on the body. Alas, all I could imagine was that they were pouring poison blooms on the poor cadaver.)

What was Hawthorne trying to say here? His Concord, Massachusetts friend and colleague, Ralph Waldo Emerson, scorned Hawthorne’s stories about ancient lands and places, which were far from his optimistic thoughts for the future. But Hawthorne here, would have foretold the great stories of Bradbury and King, and was even more complex that Edgar Allen Poe in his look at horror.

This production was, within its limitations, a superb one. We happy picnickers were limited by sight, since the characters moved on an almost empty upraised stage, and the action was limited. Also, the revised orchestration left something to be desired. I had heard only a single excerpt on YouTube with some truly lush Puccini-like orchestral painting. The pianos (outside and inside the box), the harp (played by the composer’s widow) and two percussion players had much the same Impressionist harmonies. It needed some winds, some brass, some strings to bring it out.

Yet Mr. Catán showed himself capable of a ravishing score. He didn’t need lietmotifs to make his point, for the story whirled to its tragic finish without a stop. The opening conversation between two scientists–one rational, the other demonic–set the tone for Hawthorne’s 14th Century metaphoric study of “progress” just at the start of the Industrial Revolution. It continued with more irrationality, as the young student is enamored by the young girl in a garden below him, not knowing that she is pruning poisoning plants.

The music was at times, yes, like Debussy, Ms, Catán’s harp was reminiscent of Spanish guitar. The Act One monologues could have come from Menotti’s Consul, with hints of horror never far away. But nothing is wrong with derivative opera, if it is made for voices, if its story never pauses.

Paz (not Hawthorne) goes on with feverish dreams, with realistic meetings (the one love duet is the only mediocre music, taking its key from too many Italian verissimo operas), and the catastrophic ending. What Hawthorne (and Catán and Paz and Tovar) accomplished was a most outlandish tale, yet one which rolled inexorably on. The chamber orchestra was not individual but, like movie background music, always supplied the right emotion.

Two of the best voices, I felt, were the secondary roles of Jessio Grigg and the landlady and Brian Downen as the “sane” doctor. Nothing was wrong with the strong baritone of Rappaccini, played by Eric Dubin. But this was a pleasing voice, not one of satanic power. Elaine Alvarez’s Beatriz and David Montenegro as the infatuated student were more than adequate, but in roles that needed fantasy to make them come alive.

But these were small points for an opera which, even in its chamber form, deserves to be played by both professional and amateur groups. The Gotham Chamber Opera was privileged to play in a setting of such floreate splendor–we could hear birds singing, trees rustling in the wind, groups of fireflies as the darkness came–that this all added to the atmosphere. Yet even without this, Rappaccini’s Daughter has an eerie beauty of conception and an delight in composition that the Romantic Mr. Hawthorne might have stood in awe at his awesome tale.

Harry Rolnick



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