From the Archive
September 2015; presented by Opera Hub
La Hija de Rappaccini
By Daniel Catán; Libretto by Juan Tovar; after Octavio Paz and Nathaniel Hawthorne
An opera based on Hawthorne and Paz — how great will that be? “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is one of my favorite stories by one of my favorite writers. Hawthorne’s predilection for dark tales of evil and sin, in this case the union of love and poison, run through the filter of Octavio Paz seems perfect for opera. (Now that I think of it, maybe someone should make an opera out of “Young Goodman Brown,” or “The Birthmark.”)
Dr. Rappaccini-Andrew Miller; Giovanni-Jonas Budris; Beatriz-Chelsea Beatty
Here’s the first paragraph of Hawthorne’s story. If this doesn’t make you want to read the whole, I don’t know what will.
A YOUNG man, named Giovanni Guasconti, came, very long ago, from the more southern region of Italy, to pursue his studies at the University of Padua. Giovanni, who had but a scanty supply of gold ducats in his pocket, took lodgings in a high and gloomy chamber of an old edifice, which looked not unworthy to have been the palace of a Paduan noble, and which, in fact, exhibited over its entrance the armorial bearings of a family long since extinct. The young stranger, who was not unstudied in the great poem of his country, recollected that one of the ancestors of this family, and perhaps an occupant of this very mansion, had been pictured by Dante as a partaker of the immortal agonies of his Inferno. These reminiscences and associations, together with the tendency to heart-break natural to a young man for the first time out of his native sphere, caused Giovanni to sigh heavily, as he looked around the desolate and ill-furnished apartment.
What Giovanni finds in Padua is Dr. Rappaccini, cultivator of a lush arboretum of poisonous plants, and the scientist’s daughter, Beatrice. His “high and gloomy chamber” looks down on the courtyard garden. Beatrice has been raised amidst the toxic herbs and is immune to their ill effects, but in turn she has become deadly to others. Giovanni falls in love with her and starts to fall ill in proximity to her. He attempts to administer an antidote to her, but she dies.
Cut to the opera . . .
This was a warm September evening in the downtown circus that is Boston’s South End, where parking is always an adventure. The Plaza Theater, part of the Boston Center for the Arts is a kind of basement arena theatre, thankfully, air conditioned.
The staging was no-frills, but imaginative. In this case the “ill-furnished apartment” was fashioned as a weird 19th century laboratory — Frankenstein meets the Container Store.
We read a little about the composer, Daniel Catan, in the program. He was Mexican, largely educated in England and the U.S.; he died in 2011 at 62 yoa. And we realized during the performance that listening to an opera in Spanish was a new experience. Surtitles were projected onto the wall. [Since then, New York City Opera, in its rejuvenated incarnation, performed another of Catan’s works, Florencia en el Amazonas.]
I loved the music — pretty tunes and lots of ensemble singing. One part when the protagonist is singing with the three spirits — or maybe they were flowers — was totally BTFL.
And apparently the reduced accompaniment necessary in this small venue was written by Catan himself, as an alternative to full orchestration — 2 pianos, harp, timpani, and miscellaneous percussion. Also really pretty.
About Opera Hub
Opera Hub is a small, grassroots opera company in Boston. They perform mostly unconventional works in small, intimate venues and almost always for free.
This is their mission statement from the website.
OperaHub is dedicated to creating high-quality, unified musical/dramatic experiences through collaboration with local performing and design artists, focusing on innovation and experimentation in all aspects of opera production. We believe that opera performed in an intimate setting gains vibrancy and depth, and that affordable, accessible performance of opera should also be exciting, beautiful, and fresh. We take pride in presenting small, non-standard works and chamber arrangements of standard repertoire.
Can’t argue with that. In 2016, they did El Gato con Botas, a version of Puss in Boots. (Let’s have more operas about cats.) Their posters are good too. Here’s one for a 2014 production of Der Vampyr which, unfortunately, I missed.
But the group appears to be “on haitus.” I do hope they return.