The opera took place at The Greystone Mansion on Sunday in Beverly Hills. (Humberto Capiro/Living Out Loud LA)
On Sunday July 21 at the beautiful gardens of the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, a “site specific” opera production of “La Hija de Rappaccini (Rappaccini’s Daughter)” by Mexican composer Daniel Catan with libretto by Juan Tovar was performed among the trees, flowers and open sky by the Gotham Chamber Opera headed by Artistic Director Neal Goren as a co-production with The Broad Stage and Dale Franzen, Artistic Director.
Daniel Catan (April 3, 1949 – April 8, 2011) was a Mexican composer of Russian Sephardic Jewish descent born in Mexico City. Catan’s opera “Rappaccini’s Daughter” was the first opera performed in the United States by a Mexican composer in 1994 by San Diego Opera. His last opera “Il Postino” premiered in Los Angeles Opera in 2010 and is based on the novel “Ardiente Paciencia” by Antonio Skarmeta which bore two films, “Ardiente Paciencia” (1983) and the Italian film “Il Postino” which received five nominations and one Academy Award in 1995 and subsequently sprung the opera of the same name.
Even though it was Daniel Catan’s first opera, you can hear the beginnings of his more mature lyrical style found in “Il Postino” in some of the arias of “Rappaccini’s Daughter”, amidst the more modern musical structure that permeates the rest of this work.
Since most of the opera takes place in the garden of the mad botanist Raspaccini (baritone Eric Dubin), it was a natural to set up the production in one of the enclosed garden spaces of the Greystone Mansion. A stone arched shelter structure in an Italianesque architectural style served as the stage background, while a gold painted false tree with red roses represented the garden. The male singers emerged from the structure’s side, the females from the other while making their way around the back of the audience, merging in the center aisle and making their way to the five front stone arches where they remained silent and seated awaiting their entrances for the remainder of the performance.
“Rasppaccini’s Daughter” is based on the Nathaniel Hawthorne story of the same name through the writings of Mexican Nobel Prize-winning author Octavio Paz. The allegorical plot takes place during the Renaissance and revolves around Giovanni (Mexican tenor Daniel Montenegro), a young Italian medical student who is seduced by the story of Rappaccinni’s mysterious garden next door and his beautiful daughter Beatriz (Cuban soprano Elaine Alvarez) as told to him by his landlady (mezzo-soprano Jessica Grigg).
Giovanni begins to watch Beatriz in the garden from a distance and starts to fall in love with her. But something is not right when he sees that the flowers she touches fall apart in her hands.
While in his sleep, Giovanni is transported to Rappaccini’s garden where flowers begin to speak to him. Three gorgeous young women representing flowers (Ariana Wyatt, Casandra Zoe Velasco & Nora Graham-Smith) dressed in spectacular gowns adorned with flower-like headdresses come to seduce him even more. Rappaccini appears and warns Giovanni that “the gardener always guards his plants” while Beatriz entices Giovanni who sings his love to her in “Beatriz” one of the most riveting arias of the evening. Montero gives a rich vocal and acting performance as the love-struck voyeur who professes his love to Beatriz without actually having met her.
Elaine Alvarez is a stunning young beauty with black hair, dark eyes, a strong voice, musicality and acting chops to make her someone to watch. In this role she conveys the innocence of a child mixed with the ultimate femme fatale, who’s poisonous touch will doom both lovers.
In the second act Giovanni meets up again with his father’s friend professor Baglioni (tenor Brian Downen) where we learn that Giovanni is under Rappanccini’s spell. He will subsequently enter the poisonous garden thru a secret passage shown to him by the landlady Isabela who entices him by telling him that he will meet many “lovely flowers” there.
Now in the garden, Giovanni sings “Cuanta Calma”, on how calm the garden looks in the light of day as he finally meets Beatriz. The two embark on the beautiful aria “Oh, Beatriz” in which they profess the love for each other. Montenegro and Alvarez compliment each other’s strong, expressive voices and have great chemistry together. They are interrupted by Rappaccini, who sings how everything is working according to plan after Giovanni and Beatriz leave the scene. A plan we later learn to create a super race by exposing humans to dangerous flowers in order to make their bodies immune to disease, but making them poisonous to others with their touch.
As the opera near its end we find Baglioni with a strong warning to Giovanni, implying that he is being poisoned to death by Beatriz in the powerful two tenor duo “Espero no importunar”. At the end he offers an antidote to save her made from sacred herbs.
Reaching its climax in Rappaccini’s garden the two lovers meet, Giovanni feeling angry, betrayed, accusing Beatriz of deception while she tries to explain that it is her father who’s behind his illness and she is innocent. He calms down and offers her the antidote. To the horror of both Giovanni and Rappaccini, this potion begins to kill her.
In her tour-de-force death scene, Alvarez shows off her control of voice and range when she asks Giovanni if his words were not more poisonous than her nature. He is the hero who tries to save her so that they can be together, but kills her in the process. In the end she asks the gold-painted tree with the red roses to cover her in ashes as she dies, a duty taken by the three female flowers who shower her with white rose petals.
The Gotham Chamber Opera Orchestra provided a full and at times simple sound that went from beautiful double pianos to a middle east inspired percussion. It is befitting that the musicians in the orchestra included Daniel Catan’s widow Andrea on harp adding the magical touch, with Michael Fennelly and William Hobbs on pianos, Barry Centanni on timpani, John Ostrowski on percussion and Neal Goren conducting the orchestra.
Daniel Catan died unexpectedly on April 8, 2011 in Austin, Texas after attending the rehearsals for his opera “Il Postino” at the Moores Opera Center at the University of Houston. I had the pleasure of knowing Daniel Catan and enjoyed many of his works including the world premier of “Caribbean Airs” as part of Pacific Symphony’s two-week festival “Los Sonidos de Mexico” in 2007 where we first met. His music is colorful, beautiful, romantic but most of all very accessible! Daniel was a kind, gentle soul with a lot of talent gone too soon, but his magic remains with us in his music!