Gotham Chamber Opera

Where opera gets intimate.

Gotham Chamber Opera concludes its season aptly with Daniel Catán’s 1988 La hija de Rappaccini. Whereas the company’s other offering, Cavalli’s Eliogabalo, examines the court of the self-possessed Roman emperor to illustrate how human interaction can become as base as monetary transactions, La hija de Rappaccini inhabits an even more darkly cosmic plane, rounding out a season in which the company examines the corruption of human nature. 

The opera had its premiere in Mexico at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in 1991. Catán’s librettist, Juan Tovar, fashioned the story from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1844 eponymous short story, as well as a play by Mexican playwright Octavio Paz. Paz’s play cuts through Hawthorne’s ponderous Victorian prose to the heart of a horrifying look at science gone wrong and the deleterious effects it has on human life.  Catán’s opera, with its mix of Puccini-esque vocal lines, Straussian heft, and impressionistic sonorities, may be as beautiful and bewitching as Dr. Rappaccini’s garden, but at its heart, it is a dark tale about the terrible consequences of divine ambition, not just for the individual in question but for those around him as well.

Rappaccini is a Faustian figure, albeit one with a greater dose of the scientific drive of Marlowe than the romantic propensity of Goethe. His relationship with his daughter Beatrice is reminiscent of that between Rigoletto and Gilda, although this father has significantly less concern for his daughter and plays a more voluntary part in her undoing. Like Gilda, Beatrice spends her whole life trapped in a strange world and only makes her first adult decision at the end. Both operas end in death for the heroine, although Beatrice makes her decision with more philosophical savvy than her Verdian counterpart. For Beatrice, she is facing not only life without Giovanni, the student she loves, but she realizes that she is facing life without any human contact. Her father’s divine ambitions have made her into a macro science experiment, a killing machine who reflects her father’s mortal insecurities. Beatrice’s tragedy is also her transcendence, when she comes to the realization that life without the capability to live is not worth the trouble. Therefore, the relationship between Dr. Rappaccini and Beatrice is what makes the story timeless and the opera contemporary. Catán said it best when he wrote: “An ideal can be made to serve the most horrific and inhumane causes. The 20th century has provided us with more examples than we would ever want.” 

From the opera’s beginning measures, the listener is faced with an exotic orchestration which is pervaded by a strange yet somehow Edenic depiction of Rappaccini’s garden, yet one is always conscious of a snake in the grass. The evocative score puts the opera squarely in the tradition of Debussy. Catán uses a combination of instrumental textures, dissonant harmonies, and orchestral heft. These techniques work in tandem to depict Rappacini’s Garden in a way that is both horrifying and surrealistically alluring. The music therefore makes the audience an outsider looking in, much like Giovanni. For example, in the scene depicting Giovanni’s encounter with Professor Baglioni, after Giovanni has spent the night dreaming of Beatrice, Catán uses an Andean flute which plays above an arpeggiated harp figure to reflect Giovanni’s state of dubious consciousness. The Straussian heft of the orchestra comes into play when Catan illustrates the dark scientific purpose behind Rappaccini’s garden. For instance, the weight of the whole orchestra is used in the interlude before the final scene. This is because Giovanni has just discovered that he too is becoming part of Rappaccini’s experiments and he has to confront Beatrice. The vocal lines, especially those for Giovanni and Beatrice, are dominated by the Italian school. Giovanni’s aria, “Beatriz, Puerta del Mundo,” allows the character a moment of reflection in which he spills his guts as if he were Mario Cavaradossi declaring his love to a portrait of Tosca. Gotham’s production has a reduced orchestration consisting of two percussionists, two pianos, and a harp. This reduction was created by the composer himself.

Daniel Catán (1949 – 2011) was born in Mexico and graduated from The University of Sussex in 1970 and in 1977 received a PhD in composition and music theory from Princeton. He studied with Milton Babbitt, James Randall, and Benjamin Boretz. His output includes symphonic music and orchestral songs as well as operas. When San Diego Opera produced La hija de Rappaccini in March 1994, Catán became the first Mexican composer to have an opera produced in the U.S. Catán’s friendship with Plácido Domingo has had an indelible impact. Domingo sang the role of Pablo Neruda in Catán’s last opera, Il Postino, composed in 2010. From 1986-87, he was Composer in Residence at Washington National Opera, where he received the Plácido Domingo award, which is given to Hispanic artists whose work has had an impact on the musical community at large. Catán died in 2011 in Austin, Texas, where he was rehearsing for a production of Il Postino.

 -Gregory Moomjy

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At the urging of one of my students, who wanted me to hear her star student, I attended the New York premiere of La hija de Rappaccini at the Manhattan School of Music in December, 1996. It was a day that changed my attitude toward contemporary opera forever. Up until that time, I was convinced that the art of composing for the human voice was dead and buried. But here was an opera (as I wrote at the time) that sounded distinctly modern despite arching vocal lines like Puccini’s and orchestral colors that seemed like the love child of Debussy and Berg. (Today I find the Straussian parallels even more obvious.) The libretto, tinged with magic realism, delighted me equally. I was totally smitten, and longed for the day that I could encounter it again.

Catán was therefore the first composer I approached when Gotham, in existence for only two years, decided to make its first commission in 2003. Since Rappaccini, Catán had written the highly acclaimed Maria del Amazones and had recently completed Salsipuedes (whose premiere I attended in Houston). Upon being introduced to Daniel, I discovered a true gentleman with old-world manners and sensibilities. I felt as if I had known him for years, which is how many describe their first meeting with him. He proposed that Gotham commission an opera called Menocchio, with a sensitive libretto by Lillian Groag. After a few months of negotiations, though, he pulled the plug, as he had received a commission from Los Angeles Opera for a work that was to become Il Postino, originally to have starred Domingo and Villarzon.

But we weren't finished with each other. In 2005, Catán suggested we present the New York premiere of the reduced-orchestra version of Rappaccini he was preparing. I have always been mistrustful of orchestral reductions because they generally sound like just that: watery, fat-free versions of the original. In most cases, they seem to do damage to the composer’s intentions. Daniel insisted that it was not a reduction so much as a re-orchestration, fully exploring the color palate of the piano, harp, and percussion instruments he’d chosen. He also added that since he was the one creating the reorchestration, he could hardly be accused of damaging his own intentions. That was difficult to counter.

Before anything became of the idea, though, two things happened: one wonderful and one sad. The wonderful thing was that because of the postponement of Menocchio, Gotham was able to move ahead to commission Nico Muhly’s brilliant Dark Sisters to celebrate our tenth anniversary in 2011. The sad thing was that Daniel died, at 62, that same year. With his untimely loss, I became resigned to the fact that he would never compose a chamber opera for us. The closest we would get would be his re-imagining of Rappaccini, which we proudly present tonight. He was right about the reorchestration, by the way. And to make matters even sweeter, we are privileged to have his beloved wife, Andrea Puente, as our harpist.  

This work, which largely takes place in an overgrown garden of poisonous plants, seemed a perfect candidate to continue Gotham’s tradition of site-specific productions. (In 2010 we presented Haydn’s Il mondo della luna in the Hayden Planetarium; earlier this year we offered Cavalli’s Eliogabalo at the downtown nightclub The Box.) We are thrilled to partner with the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to present this exquisite work alfresco to New York audiences. After so many difficulties getting to this point, we hope that the weather, at least, will cooperate.

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