COVID-19 has become part of the story of our lives and now also of our entertainment. Chicago Opera Theater has mounted a production of “La Hija de Rappaccini” (“Rappaccini’s Daughter”), the 1991 opera by Mexican composer Daniel Catán. American author Nathaniel Hawthorne is the grandfather of this opera, as it is ultimately based on his 1844 short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” Juan Tovar based his libretto on an Octavio Paz play, which itself was based on the Hawthorn story.
While the opera is sung in Spanish, the English text appears clearly on the screen. It doesn’t take long to place the story in the context of today with lines such as:
“A wall of poison now separates me from the world.”
“I’ve been all alone, like a cursed island.”
“What is life for some is death for others.”
“Medicine is a science that adheres to facts.”
“He cannot predict the exact effect of his drugs.”
Rappaccini’s daughter is the story of a mad scientist who is fascinated with poisonous plants, so much so that he has experimented with his own daughter. Beatriz has become as poisonous as the plants she tends for Dad, and has been kept from the world. Young medical student Giovanni rents a room adjacent to her garden and when he meets her, they fall in love. But she cannot touch him or she will kill him with her poison. A friend of Giovanni’s father, Dr. Baglioni, warns the young man of Rappaccini’s macabre experimentation and urges him to have nothing to do with the demented doctor. But the heart wants what it wants. Tragedy ensues.
One of the allures of this story is that it can be seen as a gothic fairy tale, a science fiction adventure, a romantic horror story, and undoubtedly much more. COT has placed the story in a magical realism context, to fantastic effect. Director Crystal Manich treats the story as a real one, where the magic and fantasy are simply part of the world. The result is an enticing love story thwarted by maleficent medicinal magic.
The star of this opera is Daniel Catán. He has created a lush score, one that bristles with phantasmagorical excitement. His style is unique and fascinating, and at times brings to mind the luxuriant fluidity of Debussy, the keen ear for orchestration of Ravel, and the soaring emotion of Puccini. Catán’s garden, both a paradise and a prison, is musically alive and brimming with mystery, excitement, and danger.
COT has cast this opera brilliantly, assembling a collection of singers who bring this tragic story to life. Daniel Montenegro is a magnificent Giovanni, the young medical student who falls in love with the mysterious Beatriz. His tenor sound is vibrant and pliant. He creates a man of simple passions: a love for the sea and an ardent love for the deadly Beatriz.
Soprano Megan Pachecano is Beatriz. She sings with soaring high notes that seem to caress the tree that Beatriz calls her brother. She has the simplicity of a girl and the allure of a woman, all shrouded in a gentle yet lonely soul.
Rappaccini is played with grandiose bravado by Levi Hernandez. He eschews the standard mad scientist schtick, and offers instead an intense academic who lives only for science. He ignores the moral strictures that guide other scientists, the basic rules of humanity that guide us all. While hoping for godlike results, Rappaccini ultimately finds that his experiments have consumed his daughter as well as all his hopes.
Curtis Bannister plays the pivotal role of Dr. Baglioni, the conscience of the story, the man who warns both Rappaccini and Giovanni. Bannister is a well-rounded performer who has a robust voice, enticing phrasing, and a gift for acting. It’s clear that this Cassandra knows what’s what, but those who would benefit from his wisdom learn this only too late.
Jenny Schuler is a hoot in the small role of Giovanni’s landlady. She stuffs every scene she is in with amusing detail: she’s a gossip, a lovelorn and lonely lady, and a bit of a flirt. She gets the action moving when she tells Giovanni how to enter the secret garden.
Rachel Blaustein, Emily Birsan, and Morgan Middleton are stupendous as the three flowers. They are heard during a marvelous dream sequence, singing to and singing with Giovanni as he experiences the garden in his sleep. The visuals here are creepy, with Rappaccini appearing in bug-like goggles. But the real excitement is in the towering magical music, with singing flowers (alas, the singers are offstage and not clad as demented daisies). Their ethereal music is unforgettable and performed to perfection.
Enrico Lopez-Yañez presides in the pit over a tiny yet mighty ensemble made up entirely of percussion instruments: two pianos, harp, timpani, and a battery of other smaller instruments played by one musician. On first glance, such an odd ensemble seems like something out of a graduate student’s exercise book. But it works and it works beautifully. Even more astonishing, is the fact that Catán originally wrote the opera for a full orchestra and himself selected this unusual chamber collection. The music from the pit shimmers and glimmers, it sparkles with color and wonder, it shudders with fear. The music is both a window to the story as well as a cloak of mystery and fantasy. The score grabs you and you hope it will never let you go.
Director Crystal Manich had a fascinating backdrop to her story. It was filmed live on Saturday night from the Field Museum. The garden was created where two semi-circular staircases join together one floor above the ground level. The garden is the lower floor, and the gallery above serves as Giovanni’s room. The beauty of the museum adds to the drama, and the extensive collection of plants placed up and down the staircase is vast and lovely.
Manich never dwells on melodrama (and as a great opera, there’s some of that here), but keeps her story moving with the rhythm of the music. The interactions between characters are thoughtful and the excellent camera-work emphasizes the fantastic nature of the story, with lots of close-ups of the singers surrounded by the grand setting in the museum.
Speaking of herself, Beatriz tells Giovanni that her words “come from the truth in her heart.” The truth of this opera is laid bare and made beautiful by this unforgettable production from Chicago Opera Theater.