Faithful to its mission of bringing high-quality opera to Boston audiences in an intimate atmosphere and at no cost, OperaHub opened its ninth season last night at the Plaza Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts compellingly with the Mexican composer Daniel Catàn’s 1991 mad-scientist opera La Hija de Rappaccini. The decision to stage Catàn’s neglected gem of an opera and to update it by setting it in two modern scientific laboratories rather than in a mythical medieval Padua, was all the more judicious that Rappaccini’s Daughter has been half-Bostonian and half-Mexican from the start. Catàn’s libretto, by Juan Tovar, is carefully extracted from the play that Octavio Paz wrote based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1844 short story, which itself was indebted to Frances Calderόn de la Barca’s Life in Mexico (published in 1843 in Boston, where Frances Inglis had met her husband in 1836).
The fine instrumental sextet conducted by Lina Gonzalez, and the remarkably beautiful singing of all five of the main protagonists brought out Catàn’s score, fully expressing in musical terms, as the composer hoped, “love, fleeting, fragile and unending, in which life and death intertwine to exchange their secrets.” Emphasizing a modern conflict between career and love, between the dazzling lure of science and the irrepressible desire for erotic fulfillment, Giovanni (marvelously interpreted by tenor Jonas Budris) and Beatriz (in soprano Chelsea Beatty’s radiantly clear voice) seemed to evolve under our very eyes as the story of their meeting and love unfolded. Their effortless vocal range did full justice to Catàn’s insight that the story is essentially operatic: “Hearing is the most intimate of the senses and musical forms are those that come closest to the nature of desire.” English subtitles that were projected on the wall in an unobtrusive way allowed the audience to appreciate that Juan Tovar’s libretto preserves the most poetic passages of Octavio Paz’s play, focused relentlessly on the theme of desire: “Es ella! Es la voz de su deseo, immensamente libre en la brevedad de la noche » sings Giovanni upon seeing Beatriz, while Beatriz in turn tells Giovanni that she is « inhabited by his desire» — both his desire for her and her desire for him, as though language itself became fused into music: « Estoy habitada por tu deseo». In contrast, the mad scientist Dr. Rappaccini (in a strong interpretation by baritone Andrew Miller), we quickly realized, has long lost the communicative power of language (“vida o muerto: nombres! Nombres!) as he is imprisoned in his own mad and madly narcissistic quest for power over Nature.
As though anticipating OperaHub’s Intimist mission, Catàn himself wrote a reduced version of the full-orchestral score which retains his harmonic richness and serves his eclecticism well. As Stephanie Mao and Ji Yung Lee (both on piano), Marian Ren (Harp) and Michael Zell (timpani) and Sean van Winkle and Nian She Yon (percussion) fully realized, the instrumental interludes between scenes, like the prologue and epilogue, are integral parts of the opera’s “text” and are charged with conveying the saturated ambiguity, angst and lyrical grandeur of the story. In turn enigmatic and unhinged, evoking turmoil with rolling timpani and bewitching magic with the harp, the orchestra stayed crisp and succinct throughout while allowing Catàn’s uninhibitedly sumptuous colors in the singer’s parts to blossom.
Mary Sader’s design concept of signifying Giovanni’s bleak lodgings with neon lights and of then depicting Rappaccini’s garden by means of suddenly illuminated colored lights hanging in a manic jungle of wires from the ceiling and illuminating artificial leaf-shapes with a sort of psychedelic magic created a stunning contrast, and allowed Giovanni’s dream episode, with the otherworldly voices and the flood of purple light, to emerge naturally and convincingly. The “withering of the rose” worked less well. Nicole Angell’s costumes and Lori Lapomardo’s props effectively captured the strange convergence of drab shabbiness and glamor (as well as the deliberate suppression of sexuality) that characterize modern scientific laboratories. The move to re-interpret the mythical “crone” Isabela (nicely interpreted with evil malice by mezzo-soprano Oriana Dunlop) as a control-freak psychologist/neurologist, was amusing and appropriate, giving coherence to the overall updating of the story.
Dr. Baglioni (in a strong performance by tenor Salvatore Atti) was compelling from the start, but subtly grew in stature and importance in Act II, as he increasingly recognized Giovanni’s symptoms. After the beautifully-rendered love duet between Giovanni and Beatriz in Scene 9, when Giovanni is accidentally contaminated by Beatriz even as she tries to protect him from the poisonous Tree, Baglioni reveals the story of the poisonous Indian princess and dramatically convinces the now vulnerable Giovanni to save Beatriz from her horrific destiny by giving her an antidote (scene 10). Salvatore Atti gave us a broad smile as Giovanni went off to do his bidding, implying that Baglioni had himself become ruthless and murderous in his determination to thwart his rival’s monstrous research. Contamination, implicitly, works at all levels in the competitive realm of modern scientific research.
The highlight of the final scene was the flawless rendering of Catàn’s great trio, sung by Giovanni, Rappaccini and Beatriz, in a Puccini-esque (but also Verdi-esque) statement of three separate but fatally interlaced existential viewpoints, doomed to tragedy but also to a mysterious redemption on a higher plane because of the authentic self-surpassing of love in the two Lovers. Beatriz’s dying aria was also perfectly lovely, poignant and transcendent, as the audience heard loud and clear that Beatriz had developed from a lonely self-reliant girl into a mature young woman and acquired an unforeseen spiritual capacity to embrace love and death rather than collude further with her father’s sterile quest for immortality. Beatriz’s dying gift is to reveal that human longing is not ultimately directed to Truth but to being loved — to passing to “the other shore” beyond the labyrinth of our solitude. Following Beatty’s rapturous, yet beautifully sober, rendering of Octavio Paz’s poetic words, “I am falling, falling inward, towards the center, and I do not touch the depth of my soul,” the orchestra gave a sensitive and solemn version of Catàn’s epilogue, in which instrumental music alone is used to convey, as a full equal to Paz’s poetry, the vision that “the human tragedy has passed. All that remains is the garden, redeeming the tragedy and turning it into Beauty.” Love is the Elixir, and music is its language.