San Diego isn't reputed to harbor the world's most progressive opera company, or, for that matter, the world's most adventurous audience. But there it was, Saturday night at the Civic Theatre: the American premiere of "La Hija de Rappaccini," a.k.a. "Rappaccini's Daughter," by Daniel Catan.
The event was billed as "the first fully-professional production of an opera by a Mexican composer to be staged in the United States." At first glance, that shameful claim seemed hard to believe. But a lot of memory and file searching, not to mention head-scratching, produced no contradictory evidence. Another barrier broken at last.
Under the circumstances, it would be nice to hail "La Hija de Rappaccini" as a masterpiece. That, alas, would stretch generosity a bit beyond veracity.
Still, in the quirky and irrational world of opera, one has to be grateful for small favors, and Catan's opera is just that. It may not abound in passionate revelation or lofty inspiration, but it is a serious, often compelling piece--intelligently crafted and sensitively staged.
It speaks a sophisticated musical language with elegance. And, encountered 24 hours after "Die Walkure" in Orange County, it also seems blessedly concise--lasting only two hours, including the intermission.
The opera was first performed, with some of the same forces in a different staging apparatus, at the Teatro del Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City three years ago. Significantly, perhaps, the myopic musical Establishment north of the border paid no attention.
Catan, born in 1949 and a student of Milton Babbitt at Princeton, does some deep thinking in his first opera. Juan Tovar's poetic libretto is based on a play by the Nobel-Prize laureate Octavio Paz, whose source in turn was a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The plot concerns a presumably demented Italian botanist, Dr. Rappaccini, who cultivates exquisite flowers that happen to be poisonous. His creative empire blurs the lines that are supposed to separate good and evil, not to mention life and death. The central focus--and central victim--is the doctor's innocent daughter, Beatriz, whose blood bears a fatal gift.
There is plenty of room here for rumination. On one level, the opera can be regarded as just a tall twice-told tale. Remember the melodramatic Vincent Price movie of 1963? On other levels, the opera demands to be examined as a dark and complex symbolist fantasy.
Catan's score certainly avoids the easy lurid road. Obviously, he'd rather be subtle than crass.
The dominant metaphor in the work is Rappaccini's exotic garden. The composer makes it shimmer and glow and throb and rustle with orchestral impulses rooted in Debussy and Ravel. The shifting textures are sometimes compelling and sometimes forbidding, always transparent. They support the vocal lines effectively, but never--repeat, never--overpower the singers.
The vocal lines, unfortunately, aren't exactly fascinating. The characters converse, most of the time, in a rather monotonous sing-song. There is more parlando here than is par for so colorful a narrative course.
The doomed heroine does get to float some otherworldly pianissimo tones, and her suitor, the medical student next door, does get to flex a few ardent tenoral muscles. Most of the time, however, the disparate characters all sound pretty much the same as they gasp and sputter in the lush symphonic garden. The listener waits in vain for the melodic expansion implied by Catan's idiom, longs in vain for the ultimate cathartic gesture.
The music is beautifully crafted and tastefully restrained, to be sure. It may just be too polite for its own theatrical good.
The imaginative San Diego production, assembled by Ian D. Campbell, certainly accentuated the positive. Contrary to cautious tradition, modernism can be alive and well at the San Diego Opera.
Johnathon Pape directed the drama with a knowing eye for abstraction, moving the action with swift, economic strokes from reality to dream to nightmare. John Conklin designed a strikingly spare set that frames the conflicts in an expressionist realm defined by cool neon accents, platforms raked at distorted angles and an endless array of huge flower-cutouts that drop from the sky and float across the stage invoking the mysterious sensuality of Georgia O'Keeffe.
Mimi Jordan Sherin oversaw the fluid lighting scheme. Barbara Bush created the simple, stylish costumes.
The cast, uniformly strong and obviously dedicated, respected the wonted intimacy of expression. Soprano Encarnacion Vazquez projected the heroine's toxic purity with physical pathos and vocal radiance. Fernando de la Mora looked properly befuddled as the hero who would save her and thus kills her, and he exuded bel-canto lyricism. Catan's Padua proved more congenial for the tenor than Verdi's Mantua, which he explored here last month.
Oscar Samano brought solid dignity and matching tone to the muted ravings of Dr. Rappaccini. Ignacio Clapes voiced the warnings of his skeptical colleague with crisp authority and dynamic flexibility. Ellen Rabiner did what she could with the ominous mezzo-soprano platitudes of the old servant, Isabela.
Everyone articulated the Spanish text with model clarity. The detailed super-titles proved functional, but, as always, distracted attention from the singers, flashed some key points prematurely and invited inappropriate laughter.
Eduardo Diazmunoz conducted with a masterly combination of introspection and propulsion. It would be interesting to hear what he can do with the so-called standard repertory.
* "La Hija de Rappaccini" at the Civic Theatre, San Diego. Tickets, ranging from $18 to $85, available at the box office, 202 C St. and agencies; telephone (619) 236-6510. Standing room, $10, sold one hour before curtain. Remaining performances Tuesday and March 16 at 7, Friday at 8, and Sunday at 2.