CATÁN Florencia en el Amazonas. Rappaccini’s Daughter (Highlights); Obsidian Butterfly

CATÁN Florencia en el Amazonas · Patrick Summers, cond; Patricia Schuman (Florencia); Ana Maria Martinez (Rosalba); Chad Shelton (Arcadio); Mark Doss (Riolobo) et al.; Houston Grand Opera Ch and O · ALBANY TROY-531/32 (2 CDs: 1:39; &)

CATÁN Rappaccini’s Daughter (Highlights)Obsidian Butterfly · Eduardo Diazmuñoz, cond; Encarnación Vázquez (Beatriz); Fernando de la Mora (Giovanni); Mexico City PO; Convivium Music Chorus · NAXOS 8.557034 (66:01; &)

I must confess that until I encountered these new recordings, I was quite unfamiliar with the music of Daniel Catán, although I had some vague awareness of his name. At the age of 54, the Mexican Jew (now living in Los Angeles) is not exactly a novice, but it seems that only during the past decade has he begun to achieve any sort of widespread recognition. And that recognition has been based chiefly on the two operas represented here: Rappaccini’s Daughter (1983-89), introduced in Mexico City in 1991, then in San Diego in 1994, and elsewhere since then; and Florencia en el Amazonas (1995-96), commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, who produced it in 1996, and again, by popular demand (!) in 2001. It has also enjoyed successful productions in Los Angeles and Seattle. Both operas seem to be very well received by audiences, and by many critics as well. Rappaccini’s Daughter was mounted at the Manhattan School of Music in 1997, and that production was released on recording by Newport Classics (NPD 85623/2) shortly thereafter. Reviewing that set in Fanfare 22:1, Henry Fogel wrote, “It has been a long time since I have encountered a new opera with as strong and convincing a musical personality…. This is a very important release, because it introduces to most of us a composer of genuine stature, and an opera that should find a place in the international repertoire …” I would have to say that I agree wholeheartedly with Fogel’s endorsement of Rappaccini’s Daughter, and would go even further with regard to Florencia, which is simply the most exciting new operatic discovery I have made in the past twenty years.

During his teens Catán left Mexico to study philosophy in England, then came to the United States to pursue music, earning a doctorate in composition and theory at Princeton, under the tutelage of Babbitt, Randall, and Boretz. But wait! Don’t turn the page: Catán’s music is flagrantly and unabashedly neo-romantic– a neo-romanticism far from the tepid, amateurish, inoffensive pabulum that has been hailed so hyperbolically in the promotional press of late, and which I have damned with faint praise so many times during the past few years that I have begun to doubt my own receptiveness and the fairness of my standards. No, it takes only a few moments to realize that one is confronting a level of talent and skill that dwarfs the work of most of the younger opera composers working today. Catán’s musical language inhabits a stylistic realm bounded chiefly by the lyrical passion of Puccini and the floridly impressionistic gloom of the Bartók of Bluebeard’s Castle, with occasional reminiscences of Strauss, Debussy and Ravel, and the Britten of Peter Grimes. Catán seems to exult in this stylistic fusion, stating, “In my work, I am proud to say, one can detect the enormous debt I owe to composers from Monteverdi to Alban Berg. But, perhaps, the greatest of my debts is having learnt that the originality of an opera need not involve the rejection of our tradition, … but rather the profound assimilation of it, so as to achieve the closest union between a text and its music.” Catán employs this stylistic language with a self-assured mastery of its expressive nuances, creating compelling, forward-thrusting musicodramatic structures that provide immediate gratification while promising further rewards to those who delve more deeply.

Although, as the previous paragraph suggests, Catán’s music reveals a Eurocentric stylistic orientation, his literary subjects are clearly Latin-American, and remarkably well suited to musical interpretation. Each was originally written in Spanish, the language in which each is performed here. The earliest of the three compositions is also the one whose music is least obviously ingratiating. Obsidian Butterfly is a 1984 setting for soprano and orchestra (with choral finale) of a rather elaborate poem by Nobel-Laureate Octavio Paz, a favorite of the composer. The poem represents the monologue of a Mexican butterfly-goddess (the butterfly is a recurrent symbol in Catán’s work), rich with surrealistic, vividly-colored imagery. The vocal line, though largely declamatory, is embedded within a lush, floridly and sensuously atmospheric orchestral texture, creating a compelling mindscape evocative of the tropics.

Begun simultaneously with the composition of Obsidian ButterflyRappaccini’s Daughter is based on Octavio Paz’s poetic dramatization of a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, written during the 1840s. The story concerns a “mad scientist”-type botanist who has devoted his life to the study of poisonous plants. Tending his mysterious garden in total isolation from humanity is his beautiful daughter Beatriz, raised among these plants until she, too, has become toxic to others. Observing her with great fascination from a room nearby is Giovanni, a young student, who soon falls in love with her. You can imagine the sequelae. Although Catán discovered the subject through Paz’s adaptation, Juan Tovar went back to Hawthorne in creating a libretto based on Paz’s work. The result is absolutely saturated with symbolic implication: “the Faust legend, the loss of the Garden of Eden, love vs. death, science vs. the wisdom of the heart, man shaping nature vs. nature shaping man,” as enumerated by David Wright in his program notes to the complete recording of the opera. As a subject for operatic treatment it is almost irresistible; but what is most remarkable is the way Catán’s music seems to embrace and embody the atmosphere suggested by this multiplicity of themes, producing something along the lines of a musical counterpart to the “magic realism” so popular with recent Hispanic writers. As in Obsidian Butterfly, the musical language of Rappaccini’s Daughter leans more toward Bluebeard than Puccini, although its passionate arias provide the opportunity for a rich, chromatic lyricism that Bartók carefully avoided. The orchestration displays a luxuriance that almost makes one salivate, its atmosphere enhanced by such exotic touches as what sound like pan pipes. The considerable success that this work has enjoyed is not at all hard to understand.

Recorded in 1991 under the direction of the composer– perhaps using the soloists from the original Mexican production — the excerpts that appear on the Naxos disc comprise almost half the entire work, and, of course, they constitute most of the musical highpoints. The soloists are excellent, far better than those who appeared in the Manhattan performance/recording; Eduardo Diazmuñoz, who appears to have a close working relationship with the composer, conducted both performances. One of the most valuable contributions provided by Naxos to the world’s music lovers is a low pricing policy that encourages consumers to take a chance on music that is unfamiliar. This is an excellent opportunity. I have little doubt that most listeners who sample this disc will want to go for the complete opera. Then they may be ready to spring for Florencia.

Leaning more in the direction of Puccini than Bartók is Florencia en el Amazonas, another subject rich with an emotional atmosphere ideally suited to operatic treatment. Asked by Catán for permission to adapt his work, Gabriel García Márquez consented, with the stipulation that his student Marcela Fuentes-Berain create the libretto. She describes her work as an homage to her mentor, loosely based on several of his stories. Set during the early 1900s, her conceit involves a steamboat traveling down the Amazon into the jungle. On the ship is a world-renowned opera diva, traveling incognito in hope of finding the love of her youth, a long-lost butterfly hunter. Also aboard are the ship’s captain and his nephew, a young woman writing a book on Florencia (although she doesn’t know that the diva is traveling with her), and a middle-aged married couple who bicker incessantly. There is also a quasi-godlike fellow who serves as a sort of commentator. During the course of the voyage the characters undergo a series of inner transformations as they encounter a number of challenges — challenges that are more symbolic than realistic, and are resolved as if by the intervention of a deus ex machina. The voyage is clearly spiritual and psychological, rather than literal. But as Florencia confronts her own past, symbolized by her youthful romantic passion, the writer and the captain’s nephew fall passionately in love, and the bickering couple rekindle their own mutual affection, aria follows aria with a limpid, flowing lyricism that continues virtually without interruption throughout the second of the two acts. Utilizing a musical language that should not trouble anyone who can handle La Fanciulla del West, the gorgeous lyricism is set against a richly diaphanous orchestral backdrop lent a tropical accent by the generous use of marimba.

The vocal writing soars with utter, unabashed abandon in its brazen outpouring of post-Puccinian lyricism. It is this abandon, this uninhibited expression of passionate emotion, combined with a confident ability to realize the effects he sets out to achieve, that separates this work from so many other recent operas that stumble along, only timidly hinting at such flights of passion. How individual and cohesive a musical personality Catán has to offer I cannot determine on the basis of this limited recent exposure to fewer than a handful of works. But I can assert that in this work Catán truly seems to have achieved his goal of “the closest union between a text and its music,” and does so in way that is readily accessible to anyone likely to experience it. Singers will no doubt love it, because it allows them to do what they do best. And as for audiences, I dare say that what this work has to offer is exactly what opera lovers love about opera.The recording released by Albany seems to contain the 2001 Houston production, although such identification is inexplicably absent from the package itself. I am pleased to report that the performance is quite impressive, with magnificent singing by Patricia Schuman as Florencia, Ana Maria Martinez as the writer, and Chad Shelton as the captain’s nephew. Only Mark S. Doss as Riolobo, the godlike commentator, is less than excellent.