On Monday, Gotham Chamber Opera presented Daniel Catán’s opera La hija de Rappaccini (“Rappaccini’s Daughter”) in the Cherry Esplanade at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Though in the past the company has used diverse and innovative venues ranging from a planetarium to a nightclub, La hija was the first production Gotham Chamber Opera has staged en plein air and the first opera hosted at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. Despite rain earlier in the day, hundreds of patrons packed up picnic dinners to enjoy Catán’s enchanting opera beneath the summer sky.

© Richard Termine
© Richard Termine

The opera’s libretto, adapted from a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne and a later play by Octavio Paz, is set in the garden of Rappaccini, a botanist who uses his daughter Beatriz for his diabolical experiments. One of Rappaccini’s students, Giovanni, falls in love with Beatriz, but is eventually poisoned by her deadly touch.

Gotham, which is particularly dedicated to exploring rarely performed early opera as well as contemporary works, should be commended for sharing Catán’s concise yet beautifully conceived opera. While the program notes describe the “Straussian heft of Catán’s orchestration”, the company presented the work in a reduced-orchestra version scored for two pianos, percussion and harp. Though the reduction was prepared by the composer himself, it hardly captures the richness of his original orchestration, scored for both traditional instruments as well as additions like Andean flutes. As American audiences become more familiar with Catán’s music, perhaps other companies will be inspired to produce La hija using its lush original scoring.

While the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens are nestled in the heart of the city, noise pollution was surprisingly minimal. What was most problematic was the use of electronic amplification. Microphone feedback screeched within seconds of the performances, and continued to creep into the score throughout the evening at unfortunate moments. In the final scene, Daniel Montenegro, playing the romantic male lead, could not be heard for several measures due to technical difficulties. Despite these glitches, the tenor performed admirably. His aria “Beatriz, puerta del mundo” (“Beatriz, portal of the world”), perhaps the most lyrical moment of the entire score, received well-deserved applause. At the end of the this piece, natural birdsongs blended exquisitely with the solo harp, played in this production by composer’s widow Andrea Puente Catán.

The most intoxicating flower in the evening’s bouquet of voices, however, was Elaine Alvarez in the title role. I had the pleasure of hearing the performance that launched the Cuban-American soprano into the international spotlight in 2007. Alvarez sang Mimì in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s La bohème, stepping in for Angela Gheorghiu, who was fired for missing too many rehearsals. In Gotham’s La hija, Alvarez was clearly in a class all her own and was perhaps the only singer who truly channeled the dark sensuality of Catán’s score.

Mezzo-soprano Jessica Grigg sang commendably in the role of Isabella. Baritone Eric Dubin (Rappaccini) displayed solid technique in the middle of his range, though strained when singing above the staff. In his aria, “Belladonna, cicuta, mandragora”, for example, he began strongly but, beginning with the phrase “Muerte, vida”, his pitch was less reliable. Tenor Brian Downen (Baglioni) seemed consistently sharp towards the top of his range, a problem exacerbated – or perhaps even created – by the electronic amplification. I would welcome the opportunity to hear both of these singers under more ideal conditions: unamplified, and in a closed acoustic space.

Though the tale of La hija is quite compelling, some aspects of the story suffered due to the stage direction. While the challenges of performing outdoors cannot be denied, Rebecca Taichman’s production failed to penetrate to the story’s emotional depth. Perhaps one of the most distracting aspects of the staging was the deployment of the Tres Voces/Flowers – a trio of singers that was needlessly placed in nearly every scene. For example, in Act II, the Tres Voces piled into the bed in Giovanni’s room, hovering, undulating, and ultimately distracting from the main action. I was surprised to learn that a separate choreographer was employed for the production, given how clumsy the movement was at times. The most inelegant use of the Tres Voces was at the end of the opera, when they arrived with three large plastic containers filled with fake flower petals that they awkwardly dumped onto the dead body of Beatriz.

Further compounding the directorial and choreographic problems with the Tres Voces were their costumes; boldly colored 18th-century-inspired gowns covered with black overdresses, crowned with awkward hats made of oversized, fake flowers. While Anita Yavich’s designs for these costumes, displayed in the programs, could have been somewhat successful, their execution was slipshod. The colors of these gowns were less garish, however, once the sun began to set.

The most exciting aspects of Gotham’s production of La hija was its setting. Performing outdoors is no easy feat and the opportunity to experience an opera production in the beautiful setting of the Cherry Esplanade at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden is well worth the affordable ticket price.

***11