Ah Beatriz, so lovely, so accursed! Raised by a mad father among plants that kill, she has gradually assimilated the poisons. Let her touch you, and you’ll blister. Inhale the air she breathes, and you’ll die. As for detoxifying her, forget it. There, in a nutshell, is the premise for Daniel Catán’s La Hija de Rappaccini, based on the eerily timely allegory of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s longish short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter.”
Nine years ago, the lyric muse visited the Brooklyn Botanic Garden for the first time ever in the form of an inventive production by Gotham Chamber Opera, outdoors in the Cherry Esplanade. Now Chicago Opera Theater follows that lead with a pandemic special filmed at the Field Museum, home to a botanical collection of phenomenal eco-diversity. The show receives its virtual premiere on April 24 and streams for 72 hours.
The company notes with pride that several members of the cast and creative team are native speakers of Spanish. In the Babel that is international opera, isn’t that a red herring?
Actually, no. From Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (premiered in Vienna, 1786) to Verdi’s La Forza del Destino (Saint Petersburg, 1862), on to Bizet’s Carmen (Paris, 1875) and Wagner’s Parsifal (Bayreuth, 1882), Spain has set the scene for many a canonical masterpiece. On the other hand, music theater written in Spanish has never really taken off except in the Iberian variant of the zarzuela, strictly for local consumption.
Catán, born in Mexico City in 1949, set out to change the game, and so he did. The instant international hits Florencia en el Amazonas (inspired by the magic realism of Gabriel García Márquez, 1996) and Il Postino (adapted from Michael Radford’s award-winning movie, 2010) prompted comparisons with Puccini and Debussy. In La Hija de Rappaccini, Catán’s score works on the senses like fragrances from a wizard’s garden.
La Hija de Rappaccini is available for streaming on the Chicago Opera Theater’s Web site through April 26
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii