Brooklyn Botanic Garden hosts first opera ever

Despite the heat, humidity and threatening skies, the muse and a cool breeze prevailed, so an audience of more than 1,000 people witnessed a magical performance of “La Hija de Rappaccini” by the Gotham Chamber Opera Company. This was the first opera presented at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in its 103-year history.

The Mexican composer Daniel Catan (1949-2011) and his librettist Juan Tovar based this fascinating opera on a play by Octavio Paz and a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The opera had its premiere in Mexico in 1991. This production was made possible through a generous gift from Grant and Jacqui Smith The result was an evening of haunting enchantment in an outdoor venue that evoked its setting in 15th-century Padua.

The Gotham Chamber Opera Company, founded by artistic director Neal Goren, is now in its 11th season. It has presented rarely-performed chamber operas, from the Baroque to contemporary, in various venues throughout the city. According to the program notes, the story tells of a doctor who seeks to protect and control his daughter by keeping her locked in a garden where he experiments with poisonous plants. She is immune to the plants but is a carrier of their danger. When the young student Giovanni falls in love with her, he is faced with the knowledge that pursuing that love will surely lead to his death.

Elaine Alvarez was Beatriz, and her sumptuous soprano soared in her passionate verismo duets with Giovanni, sung by Daniel Montenegro. His vibrant tenor took flight with the birds to the heavens with this lyrical and passionate score that is modernistic yet expansive. His singing of “Beatriz… Beatriz” illustrated this. Montenegro’s  “Beatriz Puerta del Mundo” was rhapsodic. Montenegro’s ringing high notes, solo and in ensemble were thrilling and his performance indicates a tenor with strong potential.

In this very philosophic libretto, Giovanni feels “neither hope nor fear, but some aspect of both” and time as an all-encompassing state of being. Time and circumstance conflict in a world of sorcery and necromancy.

Mezzo Jessica Grigg was Isabela the landlady, with dark rich tones and as a presence that assisted the final outcome. Professor Baglioni, an uneasy associate of Dr. Rappaccini, was in the strong hands of Brian Downen. His pristine and heroic tenor proved invaluable, especially in his duet with Giovanni, “Espero No Importunar” when Professor Baglioni tells of a woman who was sent to seduce Alexander the Great. His point was that Giovanni must beware of the same fate.

Eric Dubin was a splendid Dr. Rappaccini. His sinister, dark, booming baritone recalled Mephistopheles when he sang of his success in “Todo Va Sucediendo Como Por Si Solo.”  Dubin personified evil wrapped in selfish intentions; his love for his daughter was like a Venus Fly Trap. Beatriz has nowhere to go -- only death will save her. Rappaccini is like a Dr. Frankenstein who seeks no redemption. Dubin is an artist of insinuating allure and chameleon like vocal prowess.

The voices and “flowers” were in the hands of Ariana Wyatt, soprano; and Cassandra Zoe Velasco and Nora Graham-Smith, both mezzo-sopranos. They scored a triune triumph, both vocally and visually, and made me think of the film classic “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” with its human-plant creatures.

Beatriz dies when she takes the antidote offered by Giovanni and asks the tree, her only friend, to cover her ashes: “Tus Palabras Me Laceran Todavia.” Elaine Alvarez truly gripped the crowd and her “inner Tosca” was revealed in her passionate and voluptuous singing in this final scene.

Neal Goren conducted the Gotham Chamber Orchestra with abandon and aplomb in this special “reduced” version approved by the composer shortly before he died. The orchestra consisted of Michael Fennelly at Piano 1, William Hobbs at Piano 2, Andrea Puente Catan (widow of the composer) at the harp, Barry Centanni at the timpani and John Ostrowski on percussion. All were excellent!

Director Rebecca Taichman made for perfect precision of the action, leaving strong visual images, Riccardo Hernandez’s set design was brilliant, with a round uplifted stage that was almost intergalactic and gave it universality. The strikingly beautiful costumes by Anita Yavich made an indelible mark on the viewer, and the lighting design by Justin Townsend was magical in this outdoor setting with candles adorning the paths everywhere for both safety and décor. The choreography by Mark Dendy was balletic and timeless.

It was nice to meet and greet the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s director emeritus, Elizabeth (Betty) Scholtz; current director Scot Medbury; and Lou Cesario, director of visitor services and volunteers, all enjoying this unforgettable evening of opera under the stars. Many operas have flowers as their theme, so the possibilities are limitless for future productions!