Call it making the best of a last-minute change of program; call it community outreach in the midst of a pandemic; call it testing the waters for future site-specific productions. At least call it what it is: a dang good showing.
Chicago Opera Theater intended to mount a production of the late Daniel Catán‘s Il Postino at their home base, the Studebaker on Michigan Avenue. Earlier this spring, however, they swapped out that piece for another work of his: La Hija de Rappaccini (“Rappaccini’s Daughter”), an adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne‘s story of the same name by way of Octavio Paz, Mexico’s poet laureate. (The libretto is by Juan Tovar.) And they swapped venues: they set up bivouac in the Field Museum foyer.
A casual Google search of Rappaccini suggests it’s become a popular selection for companies looking to try out site-specific productions. (In gardens, natch.) The average garden, however, probably isn’t as reverberant as the Field’s foyer, nor possessing a sweeping double staircase and alcove in which to tuck Doctor Rappaccini’s neo-Eden.
All isn’t heavenly bliss, though: Everything Rappaccini (Levi Hernandez) cultivates in that garden is highly poisonous. More germanely, Rappaccini is not above manipulating people into unwittingly becoming his experiments. This includes his own daughter, Beatriz (Megan Pachecano), who, by being exposed so frequently to this garden, is herself poisonous to the touch. This also includes Giovanni (Daniel Montenegro), an earnest young student who is lured in after he steals a glance of Beatriz and this secret garden from his garret.
(Never mind the whole pandemic/”no touch”/social distancing parallel; this is the second COT show in a row that involves deadly biology, after Taking Up Serpents. Again: accident or deft programming?)
Solid singing across the board — all the more remarkable for these singers being cast for a different score — and solid music direction from Enrico Lopez-Yañez in his debut at the podium. Using a chamber orchestration of Catán’s own making, he conjures a score that’s rapturous and reckless, soaring and jittering, intoxicating and intoxicated.
More remarkable: in league with Crystal Manich‘s stage direction, Jan Thompson, who filmed Serpents at the Studebaker, gets as close as she can to his performers while still showing off the Field to best effect.
Looking at the unused space in the dim backgrounds, hearing the sound bounce hither and thither, one gets a sense that any opera can spring up from that foyer.
If that opera’s as potent as Rappaccini, please, by all means, make it happen.
La Hija de Rappaccini closed April 27th.
All photos by Justin Barbin.