One of the great things about 20th-century opera is the way the range of available genre has expanded. Britten’s The Turn of the Screw isn’t the only opera to have mined American gothic psychodrama. Mexican composer Daniel Catán adapted Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1844 short story Rappaccini’s Daughter, a fantastic tale of a scientist so obsessed with investigating life and death – and particularly death by poison – that he brings up his daughter in a walled garden of poisonous plants that she becomes the living embodiment of poison.

Megan Pachecano (Beatriz), Levi Hernandez (Rappaccini)
© Justin Barbin for Chicago Opera Theater

Chicago Opera Theater chose to film this Chicago premiere of La hija de Rappaccini in a venue appropriately steeped in investigation of the natural world: the Field Museum, one of the world’s great natural history museums. Designer Emily Boyd uses the museum’s elegant classical-style columns to represent the streets of Padua, where Rappaccini meets his arch-enemy Dr Baglioni and the young student, Giovanni. A great semi-circular staircase, decked out in illuminated plant life, incarnates the garden, with a giant pot plant taking on the role of the poisoned tree that is the alter ego of the daughter Beatriz (this is surely the only operatic love triangle in which the tenor’s rival is not a baritone but a tree).

Megan Pachecano (Beatriz), Daniel Montenegro (Giovanni)
© Justin Barbin for Chicago Opera Theater

This production uses a chamber reduction of the opera (created by Catán himself) for two pianos, harp, timpani and percussion. The music uses a harmonic palette reminiscent of Debussy: in this orchestration, it glitters and shimmers, creating an other-worldly effect that intelligently matches the mood of the piece. In such a reverberant venue, one might fear for the sound turning to mud, but the sound engineers have done an excellent job in avoiding this. The broadcast sound quality is exceptionally clear – although they can’t disguise the feeling that 90 minutes of music with a crystalline ring does eventually become a fraction wearing when it's performed in such a hard acoustic. Conductor Enrico Lopez-Yañez kept everything tight and in forward motion as well as successfully bringing across the score's moments of lyrical lushness.

All five main singers (there’s also a chorus of three flowers) produced exceptionally clear Spanish diction; under the direction of Crystal Manich, they also drove the action forward effectively. The most committed of the acting came from the antagonistic doctors: Levi Hernandez was urbane, self-satisfied, unflappable as Rappaccini, Curtis Bannister was urgent, disturbed, almost frantic as Baglioni. It’s a kind of Goldenberg and Schmuyle relationship, with Hernandez’ smooth, rich baritone contrasting against the brightness and flexibility of Bannister’s tenor. The voices that impressed were the female ones. Although the mezzo role of Isabela, Giovanni’s landlady, is the most minor of the five, Jenny Schuler made an immediate impact with a voice that is rounded and authoritative, especially in its low register (the more surprising since Schuler herself is a soprano). Megan Pachecano, as Beatriz, had a honeyed note to the high register of her soprano that was particularly appealing. As Giovanni, Daniel Montenegro couldn’t match Pachecano for pure vocal appeal: his voice was clear and urgent, but the timbre was slightly closed.

Daniel Montenegro (Giovanni)
© Justin Barbin for Chicago Opera Theater

Where this opera and this production succeeded was in bringing across the flow of Hawthorne’s narrative. Giovanni becomes steadily more obsessed both with Beatriz’s beauty and with his increasingly horrified realisation that she is an intrinsically venomous being. Rappaccini and Baglioni engage in a struggle for Giovanni’s soul which is ultimately unresolved but compelling throughout its progress.

La hija de Rappaccini is a fascinating piece and Chicago Opera Theatre has done a fine job both in entertaining us and in reminding us how varied a medium opera can be.

This performance was reviewed from the Chicago Opera Theater live video stream