Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1844 short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter” conjures Dante and Beatrice, Romeo and Juliet, Adam and Eve. It’s a love story, it’s a horror story, and it’s the perfect subject for opera. Working from Hawthorne’s original and from a 1956 stage version by Octavio Paz, the late Mexican composer Daniel Catán created “La Hija de Rappaccini,” and now that 1991 work is getting its Boston premiere at the BCA in a free OperaHub production, with supertitles. No lover of Hawthorne or opera should miss it.
Hawthorne’s tale is simple in plot but disturbing in its implications. Giovanni arrives in Padua from the south of Italy, intending to study medicine. His gloomy tower room overlooks the lush garden of Dr. Rappaccini, which is tended by Rappaccini’s sweet and beautiful daughter, Beatrice. Giovanni is warned by Professor Baglioni that the doctor’s medical “cures” involve the cultivation of poisonous plants, and that his garden may be toxic. Indeed, when Beatrice takes up a rose that Giovanni has thrown to her from his window, it withers on the spot. But Giovanni cannot stay out of the garden, or away from Beatrice, and soon the lovers are poisonous to everyone but each other. Is there an escape from the garden?
Not in Juan Tovar’s intense libretto for Catán’s opera, which focuses and sharpens Hawthorne’s themes. Here Giovanni is from Naples; his first words are about the sea there, and the opera plays the open ocean off against the enclosed garden. Tovar also creates a dream sequence for Giovanni in which he enters the garden and Beatriz — as she’s called in Spanish — implores him to “pluck the fruit.” The writing often echoes Federico García Lorca, as when Beatriz sings, “One must sleep with open eyes; one must dream aloud. One must dream with the past, and remember what the wind and the tide said.”
Catán, who studied at Princeton with Milton Babbitt, is equally oneiric in a score that looks back to the early 20th century, to Debussy’s “Pelléas and Mélisande” and Bartók’s “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”; Giovanni’s passageway descent into the garden is a model of repressed hysteria. The vocal lines tend to be monochromatically parlando and overheated, but Giovanni has a gorgeous duet with the voices of the flowers, and his apostrophe of Beatriz as the “gateway of the world” could almost be movie music. The orchestration is hyper-romantic: burbling winds, darkly muttering strings, lots of high (celesta, harp, piccolo) and low (bass clarinet, bass trombone, tuba).
At the BCA’s Plaza Theatre, however, OperaHub is using Catán’s own reduction for two pianos, harp, and percussion. The result is powerful but stark: “Rappaccini’s Daughter” in black and white. And that’s the color scheme of the staging as well. Mary Sader’s set is one big laboratory, its metal rolling carts filled with medicines and elixirs, and Giovanni’s room is represented by a dentist’s chair. Baglioni and Rappaccini and Beatriz wear lab coats; Isabela, who’s supposed to be Giovanni’s landlady, is transformed into a neurobiologist with a laptop. The garden is a bunch of naked light bulbs and some artificial orange and gray leaves.
None of this illuminates Catán, or Hawthorne. But OperaHub’s production is well sung, with solid supporting contributions from Salvatore Atti as Baglioni, Andrew Miller as Rappaccini, and Oriana Dunlop as Isabela. And though Jonas Budris, in khakis and sporting a leather satchel, is a little puppyish as Giovanni, Chelsea Beatty is an ecstatic Beatriz. When she sings of the fresh wind that has blown into her garden, “La hija de Rappaccini” bursts into bloom.
La Hija de Rappaccini
Presented by OperaHub. At: Boston Center for the Arts, Plaza Theatre, Thursday (remaining performances Friday and Saturday)