Dr. Rappaccini (Blas Canedo-González, center) hopes his daughter Beatriz (Sandra Lopez Neill) will bear godlike children with Giovanni (Nicholas Simpson).
Beatriz (Sandra Lopez Neill) with Giovanni (Nichiolas Simpson).
Alamo City Opera / La Hija de Rappaccini, by Daniel Catán
Stop and smell the roses . . . No! Don't!
Above: Dr. Rappaccini (Blas Canedo-González) in his garden. Below: Giovanni (Nicholas Simpson) in his apartment; Dr. Rappaccini in his laboratory.
May 23, 2017
Globalization gets a bad rap these
days (mainly among the ignorant), but
it’s always been a salutary influence in
the arts. Consider, for example, the
opera La Hija de Rappaccini
(Rappaccini’s Daughter), the breakout
success of Mexican composer Daniel
Catán. Alamo City Opera (formerly
Opera Piccola) gave it an
enterprising and mostly agreeable
production over the weekend in the
Palo Alto College Performing Arts
Center. It was sung in the original
Spanish, with English supertitles.
Catán and librettist Juan Tovar based
this two-act work on a play by their
countryman Octavio Paz, whose source
was a short story by the New
Englander Nathaniel Hawthorne, who
drew on an ancient Hindu myth. Oh,
the story is set in medieval Padua, Italy.
Some San Antonians have seen two of
Catán’s subsequent operas, Florencia
en el Amazonas and Salsipuedes, A
Tale of Love, War and Anchovies, in
their Houston Grand Opera world
premieres in 1996 and 2004,
respectivly. He died in 2011 in Austin
while he was working on an operatic
adaptation of Frank Capra’s film Meet
John Doe for the UT-Austin Butler
School of Music, where he was
composer in residence.
La Hija de Rappaccini reflects the Romantic movement’s wary attitude
toward science and modernity, Hawthorne’s own propensity for moralism, and perhaps, via Octavio Paz, a distinctly Mexican approach to the spirit realm.
Dr. Rappaccini is a sort of Frankenstein figure, a scientist who experiments with poisonous plants in his walled garden. His daughter, Beatriz, tends the garden and develops an immunity to the toxins, but she becomes toxic to others – bad news for Giovanni, a young medical student who rents a room overlooking Rappaccini’s garden and is smitten by the girl’s beauty. Isabela, Giovanni’s somewhat sinister landlady, shows him the secret entrance to the garden. The two young people meet and express their feelings for each other, but when Beatriz tries to keep Giovanni from touching a poisonous tree, she accidentally touches his hand, infecting him. Rappaccini offers the youth a potion that will make him immune to the poison, so that he and Beatriz may “bear godlike offspring,” but Beatriz quaffs an antidote, supplied by the well-meaning medical professor Dr. Baglioni, and promptly dies, as the opera gods require.
We can assume that La Hija de Rappaccini is not likely to receive a seal of approval from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, but it is easy to hear why the music won the approval of audiences from the work’s premiere in Mexico City in 1991. Although the score presents some challenges to singers, on the whole the vocal lines fit the voice naturally and have a kind of Puccinian lyricism, even if memorable tunes are lacking.
Catán’s orchestral writing is Romantic by disposition, but Modern in its shimmering, astonishingly varied instrumental colors. Those are fully on display in the original version for full orchestra, which I’ve heard only on a recording. But plenty of color survives in the version used here, Catán’s own reduced score for two pianists, two percussionists and a harpist.
A modification by conductor Kristin Roach helped a lot: Passages for pan flutes in the full orchestral score, but not included in the reduction, were restored and played by the pianists on synthesizers. The result, in combination with the harp, was magical in the accompaniment to Giovanni’s Act I aria apostrophizing Beatriz.
The biggest role is Giovanni, sung by tenor Nicholas Simpson with considerable power (sometimes too much for this intimate space) and a steely edge, but little subtlety and slightly stilted rhythm. Soprano Sandra Lopez Neill’s Beatriz was rich, weighty, somewhat dark in color, and pleasing. Baritone Blas Canedo-González, as Dr. Rappaccini, was the show’s most persuasive singing actor, projecting a strong, secure, bright instrument and negotiating the Spanish diction with a fluid, musical sense of rhythm. Mezzo-soprano Nora Graham Smith made a good impression as Isabela in two distinct voices, one warm and conventionally operatic, the other nasal and witchlike. Tenor Jacob Valadez, as Dr. Baglioni, was underpowered, but he got the job done.
Designer Ben Grabill’s main contribution was the gnarled trunk and canopy of a fruit tree that served as a frame for superb, moody projections (both still and animated) by Amarante Lucero, retired UT-Austin professor of lighting design.
Stage director Cynthia Stokes, who has an excellent track record in San Antonio, brought little more than efficiency to this production, but the libretto leaves the characters and their relationships in such a schematic form that she didn’t have much to work with. Beatriz’s absorption by the fruit tree at the end, however, was a fine piece of visual theatre.